Japan's new foreign minister pledged Thursday to reset strained relations with China and resolve diplomatic spats stemming from competing claims to islands in the East China Sea.
While he sought to strike a conciliatory note, Takeaki Matsumoto also renewed concerns about Beijing's expanding military and maritime activity in the region.
Matsumoto took office Wednesday after his former boss suddenly quit over a political donations sandal.
"Our geographical proximity has made our relations very important but also posed many problems," Matsumoto told reporters. "It is important to establish a solid partnership so that we can resolve the issues one by one."
During a phone call with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, earlier Thursday, Matsumoto agreed to cooperate to improve ties ahead of the 40th anniversary of the 1972 signing of their peace treaty.
The 51-year-old veteran lawmaker in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is seen as more neutral toward China than his predecessor.
Yet, Matsumoto noted with concern China's growing military presence in the region during an interview with a small group of journalists.
China's military spending has surged in recent years, including a 12.7 percent hike announced earlier this month for this year, the latest in double-digit increases. Its rapidly improving military capabilities have been coupled with a more assertive stance on disputed islands, such as the ones in the East China Sea _ worrying countries throughout the region.
Ties between Japan and China have been particularly strained since September when a Chinese fishing trawler and Japanese patrol vessels collided near islands both claim in the sea.
The dispute has prompted nationalistic protests in both countries and led China to postpone talks on the joint development of undersea natural gas fields. Beijing also temporarily imposed a de facto ban on exports to Japan of rare earths, essential for making high-tech products.
In the interview, Matsumoto also urged China to observe an earlier agreement to jointly develop undersea gas deposits in the East China Sea.
But he added that he and Yang agreed to "work together to deepen mutually beneficial relations, and that includes our effort to resolve various pending issues."
He is making a diplomatic debut as foreign minister next week when he will attend a conference of foreign ministers from the Group of Eight in Paris.
Matsumoto replaced Seiji Maehara, who resigned Sunday after acknowledging accepting 250,000 yen ($3,000) in donations over the past several years from an ethnic Korean resident. Political funding laws prohibit lawmakers from accepting donations from any foreigners, even those born in Japan.