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Flexibility key to settle islands row

Since mid-January, tensions over the disputed islands in the East China Sea known as Diaoyu in China and as Senkaku in Japan have noticeably declined, largely as a result of conciliatory words and actions by Japanese political figures visiting China.

The first to visit was by Yukio Hatoyama of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, who was prime minister in 2009-2010 and who had advocated closer ties with China while in office. Hatoyama took issue with Japan's position of denying that there is a territorial dispute, saying “if you look at history, there is a dispute.”

The former leader also visited a memorial in Nanjing honoring those who were killed in 1937 and apologized for “the crimes that Japanese soldiers committed during wartime.”

Hatoyama's visit was widely publicized in the Chinese media, which published pictures of him and his wife at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial bowing in silent tribute to the dead.

The normally nationalistic Chinese newspaper Global Times declared editorially: “Hatoyama's words and deeds these days show that in spite of the tough environment, forces which are friendly to China have not disappeared.”

Shortly after Hatoyama's departure from China, Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the New Komeito Party — a coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — arrived in China, carrying with him a letter from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for Xi Jinping, the new leader of the Communist Party of China.

Yamaguchi was received by Xi on Jan. 25, and, aside from passing over the letter from the prime minister, he also suggested that the territorial dispute be shelved for now and to let future generations deal with the issue.

Xi no doubt knew that the Japanese politician was paraphrasing the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping who, while visiting Tokyo in 1978, famously said, “Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this question. Our next generation will certainly be wiser. They will certainly find a solution acceptable to all.”

Alas, no solution is yet in sight and the best policy is to put the dispute back on the shelf.

Yamaguchi also suggested a summit meeting between Abe and Xi, and the Chinese leader responded that he would consider it seriously if there was a “proper environment.”

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