The leaders of China and Japan have held one-on-one talks for the first time since they took office, signalling willingness to put on the back burner a bitter row over disputed islands and Japan's war-time aggression.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met on Monday in the Chinese capital, Beijing, ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit of world leaders, Al Jazeera's Adrian Brown reported.

The meeting was not confirmed right up to the last moment, our correspondent, who is reporting from Beijing, said.

The two leaders were photographed shaking hands with uncomfortable expressions on their faces.

"That handshake is a powerful symbolism, and could mark a turning point" between the two world economies, he said.

"This represents the most significant breakthrough in this APEC summit," he added. "But we should not forget that there's deep hostility between Japan and China."

During the 30-minute meeting, Abe said he asked his Chinese counterpart to establish a hotline aimed at preventing clashes at sea, following frequent sparring between paramilitary vessels in the waters around the islands disputed by both countries.

Both China and Japan claim ownership of a tiny group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, called the Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.

Last Friday, China and Japan agreed to work on improving ties, paving the way for their leaders to meet on the sidelines of the summit.

The two countries acknowledged on Friday they held different views on the territorial dispute.

Japan's past militarism

Beijing has also been particularly angered by visits by Japanese government ministers, including Abe, to the Yasukuni Shrine, which China sees as a symbol of Japan's past militarism and occupation.

Yasukuni honours millions of war dead, including wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal.

As a condition for the meeting, China, which has painted Abe as a dangerous historical revisionist, had reportedly been demanding that he swear not to repeat a visit to Yasukuni.

It has also been calling for Japan to acknowledge the existence of a dispute over the Tokyo-controlled islands, where paramilitary vessels from both sides have sparred over recent years.

Japan has until now rebuffed the calls, but similarly worded statements from both countries issued on Friday suggested there had been some accommodation on the thorny island issue.

China has repeatedly called on Japan to "face history squarely", while Tokyo frequently urges Beijing to look to the future.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies