China welcomed a Japanese envoy yesterday 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 Japanese 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 Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said 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 that 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 Taiwan and 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 Vice President and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平).
Tensions soared after the Japanese government bought three of the uninhabited Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known in Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands (釣魚嶼) and in Japanese as the Senkakus, from their private Japanese owners in September last year.
Trade and tourism between the countries have dropped off sharply and almost all bilateral meetings between their officials have been canceled.
Tokyo’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.