02:23 - Source: CNN
See leaders' awkward photo op

Story highlights

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Relations have been severely strained between the two countries in recent years

At the heart of the tensions is a bitter territorial dispute

But now both sides appear to be attempting to mend fences

Hong Kong CNN  — 

The leaders of China and Japan on Monday held their first face-to-face talks since they took office, amid smoldering tensions between the two Asian powers.

Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the two governments said. The two shook hands in front of the cameras with subdued expressions on their faces.

The United States has had to navigate the fraught relationship in recent years between Japan, a key ally, and China, whose regional and global clout is on the rise. Washington has attempted the balancing act of standing by its commitments to Tokyo without antagonizing Beijing.

The last formal meeting at this level between China and Japan took place nearly three years ago, in December 2011, according to the Japanese news agency Kyodo.

Since then, relations have dramatically soured, mainly because of the escalation of a bitter territorial dispute over a group of tiny, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

China’s sudden declaration last year of an Air Defense Identification Zone over a large swath of the East China Sea added to tensions, drawing strong criticism from both Japan and the United States.

Diplomatic ties became so bad that the two sides resorted to invoking Voldemort, the fictional villain in the Harry Potter books, in their verbal barbs about each other.

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Meeting is ‘the first step’

But now, the emphasis appears to be on trying to mend fences between Asia’s two largest economies.

“This is the first step towards the improvement of the bilateral relationship, based on the principle of the strategic mutually-beneficial relationship,” Abe said after the meeting.

For his part, Xi called on Japan to “do more things that help enhance the mutual trust between Japan and its neighboring countries, and play a constructive role in safeguarding the region’s peace and stability,” China’s state-run news agency Xinhua reported.

Ahead of the meeting, the two countries issued almost identical statements Friday, saying essentially that they agreed to disagree.

“Both sides recognized the existence of disagreements on recent tensions over East China Sea waters” around the disputed islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, the statements said.

They said they had agreed “to prevent the deterioration of the situation through dialogue and consultation, as well as to build the crisis management and control mechanisms to avoid the occurrence of unexpected events.”

International leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, are gathered in Beijing for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting.

CNN’s Yoko Wakatsuki and Paul Armstrong contributed to this report.