A Japanese envoy has arrived in China to hold talks between the two sides over the dispute over an island that has raised fears of an armed confrontation.
Japan’s state media gave prominent coverage to Tuesday’s arrival of Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of a junior party in the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Yamaguchi 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 organisations,'' Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a regularly scheduled briefing.
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.
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 cancelled.
The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and have a potential wealth of gas, oil and other undersea resources.
In a separate dispute, the Philippines has taken China to a UN tribunal to challenge its claim to most of the South China Sea, including territory belonging to the archipelago, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Tuesday.
Del Rosario told reporters that Manila had referred Beijing to an arbitration panel under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a 1982 treaty signed by both countries which declares Chinese claims in the area invalid.
"The Philippines has exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China," he said.
China's territorial claims overlap those of the Philippines as well as Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Over the past two years the Philippines and Vietnam have complained at China's increasing assertiveness in enforcing those claims, particularly around areas believed rich in oil and natural gas reserves.