By Kim Kyung Hoon
NATORI, Japan (Reuters) - China is willing to increase agricultural imports from Japan, provided they meet safety standards, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said on Saturday while visiting the Japanese region battered by an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in March.
Wen, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak meet for an annual summit of East Asia's three leading economic powers this weekend, with talks due to focus on cooperation in disaster relief and nuclear safety.
In a show of support for Japan's battle with a prolonged humanitarian and nuclear crisis, the three leaders made a brief stopover Fukushima city, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest from the stricken power plant that triggered the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.
Outside a sports complex that was turned into an evacuation center after the quake, the three leaders ate cherries and cucumbers from the region in an effort to demonstrate that its food products were safe.
Fears of contamination prompted several nations, including China and South Korea, to ban imports of a range of Japanese food products and Tokyo was hoping to use the summit to secure Beijing's and Seoul's commitment to ease import restrictions.
"China is willing to continue relaxation toward importing Japanese agricultural and other goods, with the condition that safety is assured," Wen, dressed in trainers, blue shirt and a dark jacket, told reporters in Natori, a northeastern town heavily wrecked by the tsunami.
His remarks signaled a softening of Beijing's stance after trade ministers from China and South Korea last month rebuffed Tokyo's call for more "reasonable" and limited restrictions.
The meeting of three neighbors with a history of long-running feuds has been billed as an opportunity to improve their ties in the aftermath of the disaster, which wiped out whole coastal communities and left 25,000 dead or missing.
However, commentators have been skeptical about whether the outpouring of sympathy could be sufficient to overcome centuries of mistrust and suspicion rooted in bitter memories of Japan's past military aggression.
Wen reiterated Beijing's offer of help in reconstruction and said he hoped aid from China would help improve the often chilly relations between the world's second and third largest economies.
"I hope from this post-quake reconstruction effort, Sino-Japanese relations can be further improved," Wen said.
Relations chilled again last September after a Chinese fishing trawler collided with Japanese patrol vessels near a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea, which are close to potentially vast oil and gas reserves.
Doing his part, the premier called "Grandpa Wen" at home because of his man-of-the-people touch, chatted and laughed with tsunami survivors at an evacuation center, while handing out stuffed panda bears and hand-sized power generators.
The relaxed, cordial exchanges contrasted with Kan's first encounters with evacuees, who shouted at him in frustration at his handling of the disasters.
Wen, who won the hearts of many Chinese when he toured the southwestern Sichuan province after an earthquake that killed 80,000 in 2008, said he would never forget the efforts of Japanese rescue teams there. Japan is keen to see a declaration of solidarity translate into easing of import restrictions. While food makes up just 1 percent of Japan's exports, Tokyo fears radiation concerns could affect other goods just after the export-reliant economy plunged back into recession.
(Writing by Sui-Lee Wee and Chisa Fujioka; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Alex Richardson)