China and Japan agreed yesterday to hold a fresh round of formal talks to resolve a dispute over gas deposits in the East China Sea, a Japanese embassy spokesman said, a move that could help ease increasingly strained relations.
The exact timing of the discussions has not been determined but they will be held "as soon as possible," perhaps late this month or early next month, the spokesman said.
The agreement followed an informal meeting between Kenichiro Sasae, the head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Asia-Oceania bureau, and Cui Tiankai (崔天凱), the director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Asian affairs department.
Nobuyori Kodaira, head of Japan's Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, also attended the one-day discussions, he said.
The spokesman said the agreement represented progress and a wish by both sides "to restore relations."
China's Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment.
The two energy-hungry countries have been trying to hammer out a territorial dispute over oil and gas deposits near Okinawa in the East China Sea, which falls within both countries' exclusive economic zones.
In the second round of talks on the dispute in Tokyo in September, Japan urged China to stop developing the disputed gas fields and called for joint exploration.
A proposed meeting in October failed to materialize because Beijing balked after another visit by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the Yasukuni shrine that China says glorifies Japan's militaristic past.
Beijing said it would respond to the Japanese proposal for joint exploration at the next meeting, the Japanese embassy spokesman said.
China has already extracted gas from one field, triggering protests from Japan, which fears the reserves might run dry.
Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal nations can claim an economic zone extending 370km from their shores.
Both Japan and China signed the treaty, but their claims overlap the disputed area, and the UN has until May 2009 to rule on the matter.
While the two Asian powers are linked by billions of dollars worth of trade and investment, political ties have been severely strained in the past year, aggravated especially over Koizumi's visit to the Yasukuni shrine.
On Sunday, China issued a strongly worded protest after the Japanese government suggested Chinese officials had something to do with a Japanese consular official's suicide last year in Shanghai.
That followed Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso's assertion that China's military posed "a considerable threat" to the region, and called for greater transparency in China's defense budget.
Japan's public broadcaster NHK said Tokyo renewed its protest to China yesterday, demanding further investigation.
Beijing said that the case had already been resolved, NHK reported.