BEIJING China and Japan sought to cool down tensions over a chafing territorial dispute on Friday, with Communist Party chief Xi Jinping telling an envoy from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he was committed to developing bilateral ties.
Xi will consider holding a summit meeting with Abe, Natsuo Yamaguchi, a senior lawmaker and head of the junior partner in Japan's ruling coalition, told reporters after his talks with the Chinese leader.
The meeting came as China took the dispute over a series of uninhabited islands to the United Nations.
It was not immediately clear if the U.N. involvement would increase the likelihood the row would be resolved peacefully. But launching an international legal process could reduce the temperature for now.
At China's request, the United Nations will, later this year, consider the scientific validity of a claim by Beijing that the islands, called the Diaoyu in Chinese and the Senkaku by Japan, are part of its territory. Japan says the world body should not be involved.
"The China government's policy to pay close attention to China-Japan relations has not changed," Xi told Yamaguchi at the meeting in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, according to a statement on the Chinese foreign ministry's website.
But he added: "The Japanese side ought to face up to history and reality, take practical steps and work hard with China to find an effective way to appropriately resolve and manage the issue via dialogue and consultations."
China's media have portrayed the territorial dispute as an emotional touchpoint for Chinese people that evokes memories of Japan's 1931-1945 occupation of parts of the mainland. Chinese textbooks, television and films are full of portrayals vilifying the Japanese.
Relations between the countries, the world's second- and third-largest economies, plunged after the Japanese government bought three of the islands from a private owner last year, sparking widespread, violent anti-Japan protests across China. Some Japanese businesses were looted and Japanese citizens attacked.
Yamaguchi handed a letter from to Xi from Abe, who wrote that he hoped to develop peaceful relations between the two countries, Yamaguchi said.
Japan takes a broad view of the issue and believes tensions can be resolved between the two countries, he told reporters before returning to Tokyo after a four-day visit.
"Japan wishes to pursue ties with China while looking at the big picture," Yamaguchi said he told Xi, who is set to take over as China's president in March.
"I firmly believe our differences with China can be resolved," Yamaguchi said, adding that he did not directly discuss the islands issue with Xi.
"We agreed that it is important to continue dialogue with the aim of holding a Japan-China summit between the two leaders," he added, though no specific details were given. "Secretary Xi said he will seriously consider a high-level dialogue with Japan."
While Yamaguchi has no formal position in the government, he is leader of relatively dovish New Komeito party, a coalition partner of the Liberal Democratic Party that was voted to power in December.
Taking the issue to the United Nations is an effort to underscore China's legal claim to the islands, but also a way to reduce tensions in the region, said Ruan Zongze, deputy director of the China Institute of International Studies, a think-tank affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"It's two things: it's part of the legal efforts, and we want to exert our legal claim in a less confrontational way," Ruan said. "We don't want to see escalation, particularly with fighter jets. That would be very dangerous from any point of view."
In a submission to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, China claims that the continental shelf in the East China Sea is a natural prolongation of China's land territory and that it includes the disputed islands.
Under the U.N. convention, a country can extend its 200-nautical-mile economic zone if it can prove that the continental shelf is a natural extension of its land mass. The U.N. commission assesses the scientific validity of claims, but any disputes have to be resolved between states, not by the commission.