Japan, China eye 'crisis' plan to avoid sea disputes

BEIJING, November 23, 2011 (AFP) - Japan's foreign minister will on Wednesday meet Chinese leaders to discuss setting up a "crisis" mechanism that will aim to avoid conflict over disputed waters, a Japanese embassy official said.

China and Japan have often had strained relations, particularly over claims to East China Sea gas fields and disputed islands known as the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese.

Koichiro Gemba -- on a one-day visit to Beijing -- will meet his counterpart Yang Jiechi and Premier Wen Jiabao in talks that will also lay the ground for a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's to China later this year.

"One of the issues to be discussed will be the maritime issue and a crisis management mechanism for that part of the East China Sea," a Japanese embassy official, who asked not be named, told AFP.

The mechanism has been described by Japanese media as a regular dialogue scheme that will involve the two countries' foreign and defence ministries, fisheries and energy agencies, and coastguards.

Japan has long expressed concern over China's growing assertiveness and widening naval reach in the Pacific and over what it calls the "opaqueness" of Beijing's military budget.

A major crisis erupted between the two countries in September 2010 when Japan arrested a Chinese trawler captain near the disputed islands.

China issued protests and scrapped meetings and cultural events in a diplomatic offensive that continued after Japan freed the captain, while nationalist sentiment sparked demonstrations in both countries.

Japan, meanwhile, has bitterly complained that China may have started drilling for gas in an offshore energy field in the disputed waters.