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China & Japan move toward diffusing tensions

Tokyo and Beijing are set to establish a communications line in a bid to improve ties, as the two countries continue a long-running spat over contested islands in the East China Sea, Japanese defense officials said.

Speaking to reporters on Monday following a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe, Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said the new line was now in the works, stressing the need for dialogue to smooth over outstanding disagreements.

“We confirmed that the early establishment of a hotline between Japanese and Chinese defense authorities is important,” Kishi said. “Since there are [unresolved] issues with China, we need to try to keep having candid communication so we can promote exchanges and foster mutual understanding and confidence.”

The communication channel is expected to go live sometime next year, with Japanese officials saying in a statement after Monday’s meeting that it would be set up “as soon as possible.” 

China’s Defense Ministry, meanwhile, stressed that it would continue to “firmly safeguard [China’s] territorial sovereignty as well as maritime rights and interests,” namely regarding the disputed Diaoyu Islands, known in Tokyo as the Senkaku Islands. Wei said the two countries should “jointly manage and control risks” and look to preserve stability in the East China Sea.

The agreement, which is ostensibly aimed at reducing tensions in the region, comes just weeks after Japan staged military drills focused on a hypothetical Chinese invasion of the contested uninhabited islands. On Monday, Kishi voiced his “grave concern” over the recent movements of Chinese coast guard ships near the Senkaku Islands. 

A close ally to Washington, Tokyo also signed onto an American proposal to jointly defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack earlier this month – a decision sure to enrage Beijing, which considers the island part of its own territory. Though China has denied any plans for an invasion, the United States has repeatedly sounded the alarm over the possibility, with some officials calling to step up assistance to Taiwan, including with new weapons sales and even the training of guerilla forces to repel an assault by Beijing.

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