TAIPEI, Taiwan – Japan and China are taking small steps to dampen a bitter dispute over a group of small islands in the East China Sea following an intense but seemingly controlled confrontation over the islands' sovereignty that introduced wildcard Taiwan in the fray.
Foreign ministers from Tokyo and Beijing met late Tuesday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York to discuss the issue, two weeks after the Japanese government's purchase of some of the islands from private owners sparked bitter anti-Japanese protests in China and raised tensions between the two Asian giants to their highest level in years.
Vice foreign ministers from the two countries met the same day in Beijing.
Despite the promise of the meetings, it is still too early to conclude that the crisis has passed. China is almost certain to send its own vessels to challenge Japanese control of the islands, raising the possibility of armed conflict arising from mistake or miscalculation.
Tuesday's Japan-China meetings came just hours after Japanese and Taiwanese coast guard cutters exchanged water cannon blasts just off the islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu or Diaoyuitai in China and Taiwan. Taiwan also claims the islands, which sit astride rich fishing waters and potentially large reserves of natural gas.
Taiwan, which split from China amid civil war in 1949 but has been drawing ever closer to Beijing in the 4 1/2 years since Ma Ying-jeou became president, has become a wild card in the Japan-China dispute, staking out what it claims is an independent stance to assert its sovereignty over the islands.
But reflecting its claim that Taiwan is part of its territory, China has gone out of its way to suggest that Taipei's interest in the islands is identical with its own. Following Tuesday's confrontation between the two coast guards, China's state-controlled media offered clear validation of the Taiwanese actions, presenting detailed coverage of the presence of some 50 Taiwanese fishing boats and 12 coast guard vessels in the disputed island area.
During the confrontation, the two sides used water cannon for the first time, an apparent escalation in their previously low-key tactics. But the almost ritualistic nature of the exchange -- the sides separated after only a few minutes, and the Taiwanese flotilla returned to Taiwan -- suggested that Tokyo and Taipei were operating within carefully prescribed parameters and they had no interest in letting things get out of hand.
Neither Tokyo nor Beijing has released a full account of the New York meeting, though the mere fact it occurred raises hopes of a peaceful solution to the crisis between an ascendant China, flush with tens of billions of dollars of foreign exchange reserves and a rapidly expanding military, and a Japan that seems eager to prove that despite long years of economic drift it still remains a power to be reckoned with.
China's official Xinhua News Agency reported that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Japanese counterpart Koichiro Gemba that the Japanese government's island purchase constituted "a serious challenge to the post-war international order."
"China will not tolerate the Japanese side taking any unilateral action on the Diaoyu Islands," the Xinhua report said. "China will continue to take firm measures to safeguard its territorial integrity and sovereignty."
Earlier, senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official Naoko Saiki repeated Japan's claims to the islands, and said that while compromise with Beijing would likely be difficult, the two sides should keep talking.
"We don't want to have any wars or battles or use of force," she told reporters. "We have to stabilize the situation through dialogue in a peaceful manner, in accordance with international law."