There may be a tiny thaw in the frosty relations between Japan and China. Japanese officials say that that consultations on a variety of topics are to take place in China on Monday.
Japanese officials say diplomats from Tokyo and Beijing will meet next week for the first such encounter of the new year. The meeting comes after months of China rebuffing Japanese calls for talks.
Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Akira Chiba terms the meeting "an informal discussion."
"Mr. Kenichiro Sasae, the director general of the Asian and Oceania affairs bureau, will hold unofficial consultations concerning a wide range of bilateral relations with Cui Tiankai, the director general of the Asian bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, on the morning of 9th January in Beijing," he announced.
Diplomats in Tokyo say they are especially relieved that China has agreed to resume discussions on a dispute over natural gas resources in the East China Sea. The head of Japan's Natural Resources and Energy Agency will take part in the talks Monday.
Mr. Chiba sees the talks on that dispute as a positive development.
"We held the third round of talks and we have been waiting for the Chinese response for this," he said. "Apparently the Chinese are ready to talk about the fourth round and we are going to prepare for this."
The dispute concerns a maritime area overlapping both countries' economic zones. Japan has called for China to halt gas extractions and has proposed joint development of the region. Japan also awarded drilling rights in the area last year to a domestic company, but work has yet to start.
Relations between the two giant Asian economic powers significantly worsened in 2005. In addition to territorial disputes, rising nationalism in both countries has increased tension over the legacy of Japanese imperialism on the Asian continent.
Both China and South Korea have criticized Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's pilgrimages to a Tokyo war shrine, which they say demonstrates a lack of remorse for Japan's brutal occupation and warfare before and during World War II. Mr. Koizumi insists the visits are to pay homage to all of Japan's war victims and to pray for peace.
Because of the shrine visits, the Beijing government had curtailed contacts with Japan.