Japan PM Fukuda's Asia debut symoblises thaw in ties

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SINGAPORE, Nov 20 (Reuters) Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda today 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.

Fukuda, who took office in September, had lunch with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, an unusual occurence, Japanese officials said, given that they were meeting on the sidelines of an Asian leaders' meeting.

Fukuda earlier held talks with Wen and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, in which they agreed to hold a three-way summit regularly, apart from their annual get-togethers at the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, a Japanese official said.

Such moves for closer ties are in stark contrast to relations under former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who angered Asian neighbours with his annual visits to a controversial war shrine and only managed to meet their leaders rarely.

''When I visited China four years ago, things were very tough,'' a top Fukuda aide quoted the prime minster as telling Wen. Koizumi was in power from 2001 until September 2006.

''But now, our main agenda is how to accelerate the 'mutually beneficial strategic ties','' Fukuda was also quoted as saying.

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 told reporters.

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

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.

But Japan-China ties are not all rosy. The two are at odds over gas exploration in a disputed area in the East China Sea.

While the two countries have agreed to seek a settlement by the end of autumn, they 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.

Resource-poor Japan is concerned that Chinese production in the area could siphon off gas from what Japan sees as its own exclusive economic zone. The two countries disagree over the boundary between their respective zones.

China's state-owned firm, CNOOC, said in April it had begun producing gas from one of the fields in the area and was ready to begin producing from a larger field.


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