Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping in their first talks to closely cooperate for the further development of bilateral ties, despite differences over thorny issues.

Suga, who took office last week, said to reporters he told Xi over the phone, "Stable relations between Japan and China are extremely important not only for both countries but for the region and the international community, and that we both have a responsibility in this regard."

He said the two leaders agreed to "work closely together at a high level" going forward.

Combined file photo of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Kyodo)

The talks came amid heightened tension between China and the United States, Japan's principal security ally, and a simmering territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing over a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea.

During the roughly 30-minute talks, Suga expressed concern over the situation in the East China Sea and issues that are of great interest to the international community including Hong Kong, and told Xi that he wants to discuss them in the future, a Japanese official told a press briefing.

Tokyo has repeatedly protested Beijing's sending of government ships and fishing boats near the Senkaku Islands, controlled by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.

Earlier this year, Beijing introduced a sweeping national security law in the semiautonomous territory, prompting Japan and other countries to express "grave concern" over an erosion of freedoms.

Xi expressed his desire to advance bilateral relations, Suga told reporters outside of his official residence, adding that they did not discuss plans for the Chinese president to visit Japan as a state guest.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks to reporters in Tokyo on Sept. 25, 2020, after speaking by phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping, their first conversation since Suga took office the previous week. (Kyodo) 

The trip had been planned for spring this year but was postponed indefinitely due to the global coronavirus pandemic, and some ruling party lawmakers are now calling for it to be canceled altogether.

The Japanese government's top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, said earlier in the day that the countries are currently "not at the stage of setting a date" for the visit.

Suga and Xi affirmed their cooperation on North Korea, including Japan's efforts to retrieve nationals who were abducted by Pyongyang's agents in the 1970s and 1980s, the Japanese official said.

They also agreed to work together on tackling the pandemic and to seek the resumption of business travel between the countries at an early date amid COVID-19 restrictions.

Xi was quoted by China's state-run media as telling Suga that Beijing will support Tokyo to successfully host next summer's Olympics in the Japanese capital.

The last time the leaders of the neighboring countries spoke was when former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Xi in Chengdu, western China, in December last year. Xi last held phone talks with a Japanese leader in May 2018.

In a press conference following his inauguration, Suga vowed to pursue a "free and open Indo-Pacific," a concept Abe had pushed as a counter to China's growing maritime assertiveness, while maintaining stable relations with neighboring countries.

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