Chinese fishery surveillance ships (center and below left) enter the Japanese territorial waters near Uoturijima (background), one of the main island of the disputed Senkaku Islands. Photo: AFP via The Yomiuri Shimbun

Japan and China are engaged in an edgy territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, known in China as the Diaoyu Islands . But this isn’t stopping Tokyo and Beijing from opening a hotline to head off an accidental conflict in the East China Sea, the Asahi Shimbun reports.

The top Japanese newspaper quotes sources in the Japanese and Chinese governments as saying that “an agreement in principle” was reached on the hotline during discussions held in Shanghai on December 5-6.

The move is being interpreted as a sign of improving ties between Japan and China, which have dispatched naval ships and planes to the disputed area in a show of force. Taiwan also says it owns the islands.

Japanese and Chinese officials had been discussing operating such a hotline for years as tensions have mounted over the tiny islands which are claimed by both countries. Fallout from the dispute grew in September 2012 when the Japanese government purchased the Senkaku chain from a Japanese family that said it legally owned the islands.

But Asahi says the plan to create the hotline finally moved ahead when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November on the sidelines of a regional economic summit in Danang, Vietnam.

Actual operation of the hotline will reportedly commence after a formal agreement is made between  Xi and Abe, Asahi reported.

But the newspaper noted that the Senkaku issue continues to be sensitive as no direct mention of the islands was made “in the agreement on the geographical limits of the hotline” between Japan and China.

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