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Japan, China to Hold Talks

Japan and China are set to hold their first high-level diplomatic discussions in four months. The talks will be held there just days before a change of leadership for the Japanese government.

Vice foreign ministers of Japan and China are to hold two days of talks here beginning Saturday. They will be the first such discussions between the Asian neighbors since May.

The sixth round of the dialogue comes at a pivotal time in Japanese politics - just days before Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe is to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Relations between Tokyo and Beijing chilled during Mr. Koizumi's five years in office - in no small part because of his visits to a Shinto shrine where convicted war criminals are among those honored.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi told reporters there is unlikely to be much released about the agenda or the outcome of the talks.

"Beijing and Tokyo have both agreed to give a veil of mystique to the dialog so that maximum amount of free discussion is going to be preserved," the spokesman said.

Abe, expected to be named by parliament as prime minister on Tuesday, has vowed to improve Sino-Japanese relations after he takes office.

The tensions between China and Japan also include territorial issues, such as the dispute over exploration rights to undersea resources in the East China Sea.

But the visits to Yasukuni Shrine have generated the most emotion on both sides. Chinese leaders see the shrine visits as evidence of Japan's lack of remorse for its brutal occupation and colonization of much of China during the early 20th century.

Mr. Koizumi has defended the visits as his right to pay respects to all of Japan's war dead and to pray for world peace.

A specialist in relations between East Asia and the United States, Columbia University professor Gerald Curtis, predicts the new prime minister will have to show greater flexibility with China than Mr. Koizumi did.

"The U.S. wants an alliance with Japan and a positive relationship with China," Curtis noted. "And if the view in the U.S. is that the reason that we cannot have both is because the Japanese have drawn a line in the sand over the history issue, that is not going to serve Japanese interests well. And I think Mr. Abe, sooner or later, is going to have to come to grips with this issue."

The Chinese have said visits to the shrine by top Japanese officials are an obstacle to improving relations.

Abe has said he will not discuss the issue of whether he will visit the shrine as prime minister.

Many political analysts think that Abe, after becoming prime minister, will soon meet with top Chinese officials - either in Beijing or at the ASEAN summit in the Philippines in December.