China and Japan are holding high-level maritime talks expected to focus on a group of uninhabited islands that are at the heart of an ongoing territorial row between the two countries.
The two nations have long had strained relations, often triggered by rival sovereign claims in the East China Sea over gas fields and the disputed islands – known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.
Officials from the two countries’ foreign and defence ministries, as well as their maritime affairs departments, will attend the one-day meeting today (Wednesday) in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou.
“China and Japan reached consensus in December to set up a China-Japan high-level consultation mechanism on maritime affairs,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters.
He said there would be “no restrictions on the issues” to be discussed during the first round of talks.
In 2010, ties between China and Japan hit a low point after Japanese authorities arrested a Chinese captain for ramming his trawler against Japanese coastguard ships in the area of the disputed islands.
The crisis was eventually resolved through diplomatic channels, but there have been a number of low-scale incidents since then that have fanned tensions between the two countries.
The Wednesday talks could however be overshadowed by the annual conference of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) – an exile group that seeks to raise awareness about persecution of Uyghurs in China – taking place in Tokyo.
Beijing denies any such persecution and accuses the WUC of being closely linked to terrorist groups. It is against any country hosting the organisation and on Monday hit out at Japan for allowing the conference to take place.
Territorial disputes in the seas surrounding China are causing growing alarm in the region and further afield.
Several Asian countries have competing territorial claims to parts of the East and South China Seas, most of which involve tiny island chains such as the Diaoyu or Senkaku that are potentially resource-rich.
China and the Philippines are currently involved in a high-profile maritime stand-off over a set of islands in the South China Sea that both countries claim as their own.