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International relations

Japan defense chief visits China for first time in a decade

Trust-building trip comes ahead of Abe's meeting with Xi next week

Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono, left, and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe agreed to establish a bilateral defense hotline soon.   © Kyodo

BEIJING -- Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono met with Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe here Wednesday, the first such visit since 2009, continuing a recent thaw in bilateral ties.

The ministers agreed to set up a defense hotline soon and to work together toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is slated to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in China on Monday, while Xi is set to visit Japan as a state guest next spring.

"We need to create a positive environment" for those summits, Kono told reporters later Wednesday. Wei described Kono's visit as "extremely significant" for improving Sino-Japanese relations and defense cooperation and called for building a "proactive and constructive security relationship."

With tensions running high between the U.S. and China, Beijing has worked harder to mend fences with Tokyo, valuing its relationship of trust with President Donald Trump's administration.

Last year saw the establishment of communication protocols aimed at preventing accidental military clashes, as well as the first meeting between Chinese and Japanese defense ministers in three years.

This past April, a Japanese destroyer participated in an international fleet review held at the Chinese city of Qingdao. A cutting-edge Chinese guided-missile destroyer went to Japan in October for a "friendship exercise," marking the first joint Sino-Japanese naval drills in eight years.

Both sides plan to continue making reciprocal visits and plan to arrange a trip by Wei to Japan next year, which would also be the first of its kind in a decade. 

But unresolved issues remain between the two countries, as Kono stressed at Wednesday's meeting.

He expressed "strong concern" about activity by Chinese government ships and aircraft around Japan's Senkaku Islands and urged Beijing to take action on the matter. How Wei responded has not been disclosed.

The Senkakus, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu, have been an off-and-on source of bilateral tensions.

Four Chinese coast guard vessels sailed through waters surrounding the Senkakus on Wednesday, marking a 10th straight day of such activity confirmed by the Japan Coast Guard. A record 1,000-plus vessels have passed near the islands this year.

Kono also emphasized the importance of resolving the unrest in Hong Kong through peaceful dialogue and touched on Beijing's establishment of military bases in the South China Sea.

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