PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Japanese and Chinese foreign ministers sparred over rival claims to uninhabited islands in the East China Sea on Wednesday but appeared to try to steer clear of the acrimony that plunged ties between the two Asian giants into a deep chill two years ago.
The meeting in the Cambodian capital on the sidelines of a regional meeting came just hours after Japan lodged a protest with China against the entry of Chinese patrol ships into waters near disputed islands in the East China Sea, an issue that has long plagued relations between Asia's two biggest economies.
"Through specific cooperation we have to make Japan-China relations forward looking," Kyodo news agency quoted Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba as telling Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the start of the two-way talks.
"But at the same time, today, I would like to exchange views frankly on some problems existing between the two countries," Kyodo quoted him as saying, adding that Gemba repeated Japan's protest over the Chinese ships' actions.
Gemba told reporters after the talks that "It is important to respond calmly so that Japan-China relations overall are not affected," Kyodo said.
Yang said that Sino-Japanese ties, which this year mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic normalization, had achieved "some progress" since the start of the year, according to a statement from China's delegation to the regional meeting.
Yang added that there were "some acute problems" in bilateral ties and stressed that the islands had always been Chinese territory, the statement said.
"He urged Japan to adhere to relevant agreements and understanding between the two sides in good faith, return to the right path of managing differences through dialogue and consultation with the Chinese side and take concrete actions to uphold the overall interests of the bilateral ties," the Chinese statement added. Yang declined to comment when asked about the meeting by Reuters.
Earlier on Wednesday, Japan protested to the Chinese ambassador in Tokyo after three Chinese fishery patrol ships entered waters near the uninhabited islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. The islands, claimed by Beijing and Tokyo as well as Taipei, are located near rich fishing grounds and potentially huge oil and gas reserves.
Japan said last week it was considering a plan to buy the islands from private landowners instead of letting the nationalist governor of Tokyo go ahead with a similar plan, a move diplomatic experts said may have been intended to dampen tensions but which risked backfiring, and damaging Sino-Japanese ties.
"It is clear that the Senkaku islands are inherently Japanese territory from a historical point of view and in terms of international law and that they are under the effective control of Japan," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told a news conference.
China swiftly rejected the claim.
"Chinese fisheries patrol boats went to the waters administered by China in accordance with Chinese law ... China does not accept the representations lodged by the Japanese side, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a media briefing.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, a conservative who has shifted Japan's diplomacy back toward a focus on U.S. security ties after his ruling Democratic Party's brief flirtation with a more Asia-centered stance, said on Saturday that the central government was considering buying the isles.
His comments came months after Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara first floated his own scheme for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to purchase three of the islands, now privately owned by Japanese citizens and leased to the central government, to "protect" them from Chinese maritime incursions.
Ties between the giant Asian neighbors, long plagued by Beijing's bitter memories of Japan's past militarism and by rivalry over resources and regional clout, deteriorated sharply in 2010 after Japan detained the skipper of a Chinese trawler whose boat collided with two Japanese patrol ships near the islands.
Diplomatic experts said that while both countries would probably want to avoid repeating that period of iciness, a serious flare-up of tensions could not be ruled out.
China faces a one-a-decade leadership change, while the unpopular Noda is struggling with a ruling party revolt.
"They (China) are in a very difficult situation. Emotionally, for the (Japanese central) government to buy it is worse than the (Tokyo) municipal government. That is the image of most Chinese people," said Yoshihide Soeya, director of the Keio Institute of East Asian Studies in Tokyo.
"The reality is different, but whether that logic goes through? I don't think it does," Soeya said. "Things will get worse for some time, but I think it will not be too extreme."
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Tetsushi Kajimoto and Linda Sieg in Tokyo and Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)