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Leaders of China, Japan are likely to meet for first time

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TOKYO >> The leaders of Japan and China are likely to meet for the first time next month on the sidelines of a regional summit in Beijing, shaking hands in a carefully negotiated display of good will that Japanese officials say they hope will lower tensions between the two estranged Asian powers.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations, said the hoped-for meeting between Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, had been months in the making and involved behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts by both nations.

While they have not received final word from the Chinese side, they said they were now optimistic that the two leaders would meet briefly — perhaps for about 15 minutes — during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, or APEC, a summit of regional leaders that Xi will host.

In another sign of rapprochment, Japan’s Kyodo News agency reported on Friday that Abe had shaken hands with China’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, at a dinner for Asian and European leaders in Milan.

The officials said that while the meeting between the two leaders would most likely be too short to delve into issues of substance, they hoped it would be rich in symbolism. They said they hoped a meeting would open the way for a broader thaw in relations between China and Japan, Asia’s two largest economies, which have been in a deep freeze since the Japanese government purchased disputed islands two years ago.

“A month ago, I would have told you a meeting was not likely,” one Japanese official said. “Now, I’d say both countries have come around to seeing it as in their interests.”

The two countries have been locked in an almost Cold War-style standoff since the purchase of the islands by Abe’s predecessor in mid-2012, a move that was intended to prevent them from falling under the control of Japanese ultranationalists. Outraged by what it saw as a unilateral move to strengthen Japanese control over islands that it also claims, China responded by cutting off many political, academic and cultural contacts.

Both leaders, however, have come under increasing pressure to contain the damage to their nations’ huge economic relationship. Political analysts said both were also keen to avoid appearing to be the cause of a standoff that many had worried might turn an accident or miscalculation by the vessels into a violent escalation.

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