China: leaders' meeting with Japan and South Korea postponed amid Tokyo war shrine tension

China said Sunday an annual leaders' meeting with Japan and South Korea scheduled for this month will be postponed because of "the current atmosphere" an apparent reference to the Japanese prime minister's repeated visits to a war shrine.

Leaders of the three countries meet once a year on the sidelines of a conference with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, scheduled to take place Dec. 12-14 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

"Due to the current atmosphere and conditions, the seventh China-Japan-Republic of Korea leaders' meeting will be postponed until a proper date," China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its Web site.

It didn't give a reason, but Beijing has reacted with fury to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to a Tokyo shrine that honors Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals.

Japan brutally occupied parts of China during World War II.

Koizumi apologized this year on the 60th anniversary of the war's end, but China said he "swallowed his words" when he visited the shrine in October.

The shrine dispute threatens to deepen historic rifts between Japan and China East Asia's largest economy and its fastest rising power.

China "hopes the three sides cooperate to limit obstacles and develop in a stable manner," the ministry statement said.

The postponement comes as the three countries are working with the United States and Russia to try to get North Korea to stop developing nuclear weapons.

China had already ruled out one-on-one meetings between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Koizumi at the ASEAN conference because of the war shrine visits.

"China-Japan relations have been seriously damaged," Cui Tiankai, director of the Foreign Ministry's Asian Affairs Department, said last week.

"Under such circumstances, it is impossible to expect everything to go ahead as usual, as if nothing has happened," he said.

South Korea has also said President Roh Moo-hyun won't meet one-on-one with Koizumi at the ASEAN meeting, amid charges that Tokyo is glossing over its imperialist and wartime past.

Japan occupied the Korean Peninsula in 1910-1945. There was no word on whether Chinese and South Korean leaders would meet separately.

Ties between China and Japan deteriorated this year after riots in major Chinese cities over Tokyo's approval of history textbooks that critics say minimize wartime atrocities. The two sides have also been unable to resolve a territorial dispute over oil and gas deposits in the East China Sea, reported AP. P.T.