By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 11:22 AM
TOKYO - Beginning twin diplomatic repair jobs, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Saturday met leaders from China and Russia to discuss territorial disputes that have strained relations between Japan and its massive neighbors.
The bilateral meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, on the sidelines of this weekend's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Yokohama, represented Kan's attempt to steer away from tensions that have overshadowed his recent agenda and drawn domestic criticism.
Though the Medvedev meeting had been planned in advance, Kan's meeting with Hu was a last-second arrangement, coming hours after several thousand demonstrators - holding Japanese flags and shouting anti-China slogans - marched through downtown Yokohama. Chinese and Japanese officials had spent days trying to orchestrate the meeting, the leaders' first official get-together since a Sept. 7 boat collision drove Sino-Japanese relations to their lowest point in years.
Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama, speaking to reporters, characterized the Hu-Kan meeting as a "big step towards improvement," though he did not say whether the leaders had reconciled any territory issues.
Political analysts in Tokyo view this APEC summit as a substantial test for Kan's diplomacy. Since the collision among a Chinese trawler and two Japanese patrol boats near disputed islands in the East China Sea, Japan has faced the consequences of a hostile China. When Japan arrested and detained the trawler captain, China cut diplomatic ties and stopped the shipment of rare earth elements, necessary in everything from hybrid cars to batteries.
According to Japanese Trade Minister Akihiro Ohata, China now plans to relax restrictions on rare earths exporting. China produces about 97 percent of the world's rare earth elements.
A second decades-old territorial dispute rekindled on Nov. 1, when Medvedev - returning from Vietnam - detoured to a set of islands that are administered by Russia but claimed by Japan. Before Medvedev spent four hours on Kunashiri Island, touring a fish processing factory and taking a few photos of the barren landscape, no Russian leader had stepped on the land. Japanese officials responded with outrage, recalling their ambassador from Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in turned called the Japanese reaction "unacceptable."
Kan and Medvedev softened the rhetoric on Saturday, with Medvedev telling his counterpart, "I hope that today's meeting will help the start of a comprehensive dialogue on the basis of mutual trust." Medvedev also asked Kan to visit Russia next year.
After World War II, the Soviet Union claimed disputed islands, preventing the signing of a peace treaty with Japan. Russia now calls them the Southern Kurils. Japan calls them the Northern Territories, and says the southernmost four are part of its territory.