Japan PM Fukuda's Asia debut symbolises thaw in ties

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SINGAPORE, Nov 20 (Reuters) Japan's prime minister on Tuesday sealed a long list of agreements with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts in his first meeting with the Asian neighbours, underlining warming ties in Northeast Asia.

But in talks with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the two leaders side-stepped some thorny issues, including a long-standing dispute over natural resources and China's growing military might.

Yasuo Fukuda, who took office in September, had lunch with Wen, in addition to their summit, Japanese officials said. The two met on the sidelines of an Asian leaders' meeting in Singapore.

''Such a luncheon in a third country is unprecedented,'' a top Fukuda aide who sat in on the meetings told reporters.

''The two leaders were able to build a relationship of trust.'' Fukuda told Wen he intended to visit China by the end of the year or early next year, and called for a visit to Japan by Chinese President Hu Jintao next year, the aide also said.

Fukuda and Wen were joined earlier by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, and the leaders agreed to hold a three-way summit regularly, apart from their annual get-togethers at the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, Japanese officials said.

Fukuda and the two leaders reached an agreement on a total of 13 areas, including a deal to set up a ''cyber secretariat'' on the Internet to promote dialogue among the three governments and also a promise to hold a soccer tournament among their lawmakers, according to Japanese officials.

TIES NOT ALL ROSY The moves for closer ties are in stark contrast to relations under former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who only met Chinese and South Korean leaders occasionally.

Koizumi's annual visits to a war memorial angered his neighbours, who regard Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.

A Chinese naval destroyer will make the first ever visit to Japan later this month, a plan originally set in 2000, but failed to materialise as ties deteriorated under Koizumi.

''When I visited China four years ago, things were very tough,'' Fukuda was also quoted as telling Wen.

Koizumi was in power from 2001 until September 2006.

Koizumi's successor, Shinzo Abe, began mending fences with trips to Beijing and Seoul, before abruptly resigning two months ago.

The two sides have agreed to resolve the row over gas exploration in a disputed area in the East China Sea by the end of autumn, but failed to reach a breakthrough in talks held in Japan last week, prompting Tokyo to warn that the lack of progress may even affect Fukuda's planned visit to China.

In Tuesday's meeting, Fukuda and Wen only agreed to work towards a resolution and did not set any new deadlines, Japanese officials said.

Fukuda also did not raise the issue of China's increasing military spending, which Tokyo has long said lacks transparency, officials added.

REUTERS BJR HS1505

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