BEIJING – China welcomed a Japanese envoy Tuesday for talks as both sides took steps to cool tensions over an island dispute that has raised fears of an armed confrontation.
In a sign of the importance Beijing attached to the visit, state media gave prominent coverage to the arrival of Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of a junior party in the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Yamaguchi, whose schedule has not been announced, is not a member of the government so his meetings in Beijing represent a type of quiet diplomacy that could allow for a franker exchange of views than official talks might.
Yamaguchi's visit is part of China's "normal relations and contact with friendly Japanese political parties and organizations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a regularly scheduled briefing. "The dealings can help solve problems and move forward healthy relations," Hong said.
Yamaguchi made no comments upon his arrival but told reporters in Tokyo he hoped his four-day trip would help ease months of friction over the uninhabited East China Sea islands that are controlled by Japan but claimed by China.
"It is important for us to have consultations to normalize our relationship," Yamaguchi said.
However, he said Tokyo's assertion that the islands are Japanese territory is unchanged, rejecting Chinese demands that Japan acknowledge a dispute over their sovereignty. Both nations have called for dialogue recently, and Chinese state broadcaster CCTV led its noon news broadcast with a live report on Yamaguchi's arrival.
Chinese media reported that Yamaguchi would deliver a letter from Abe addressed to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Tensions soared after Japan's government bought the uninhabited islands, known in Chinese as Diaoyu and Japanese as Senkaku, from their private Japanese owners in September. Trade and tourism between the countries have dropped off sharply and almost all bilateral meetings between their officials have been canceled.
The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and have a potential wealth of gas, oil and other undersea resources. For China, they also mark a strategic gateway to the Pacific Ocean and represent the deeply emotional legacy of Japan's conquest of Chinese territory beginning in 1895, as well as its brutal World War II occupation of much of the country.
Placed under U.S. control after World War II, the islands were returned to Japan in 1972, although Beijing says they have been Chinese territory for centuries. Taiwan also claims the islands.
Japan's nationalization of the islands sparked violent anti-Japanese rioting in China and prompted Beijing to dispatch marine surveillance ships to them on a regular basis to confront Japanese coast guard cutters assigned to protect the area.
That standoff has also moved to the skies. Earlier this month, both sides scrambled fighter jets to trail each other's planes — underscoring the potential for accidents or miscalculations sparking a clash that could draw in Japan's treaty partner the United States.
Beijing has since ratcheted down its verbal attacks on Japan and last week hosted a visit by China-friendly former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama for informal talks on the dispute.