TOKYO -- Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has said that he is willing to meet with Chinese leaders to cool tensions in an emotional island dispute, asserting that the two countries should not let the disagreement further damage their huge economic relationship.
"There might be a need to re-establish the relationship, starting with a summit," Mr. Abe said late Tuesday on a television talk show, referring to the fraying of ties between Tokyo and Beijing over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. While he reiterated his position that there was "no room for negotiations" over Japan's control of the islands, Mr. Abe said the two countries, which have Asia's largest economies, should rebuild what he called a "strategic partnership of mutual benefit," according to comments reported on Wednesday by Kyodo News.
The apparent olive branch comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity by Japan in the last week aimed at ratcheting down an increasingly heated standoff in which both nations scrambled fighter jets this month, prompting a debate in Japan over whether its planes should fire warning shots. Tensions over the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, date back decades and flared anew last year when the Japanese government decided to buy three of the islands, igniting violent protests against Japanese businesses in China.
To defuse tensions, a Japanese delegation led by former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and including leading lawmakers from Mr. Abe's governing Liberal Democratic Party met in Beijing on Monday with Tang Jiaxuan, a former Chinese foreign minister with ties to Japan. That visit followed a meeting on Friday that the Chinese head of state, Xi Jinping, held with Natsuo Yamaguchi, the leader of a small Buddhist party that is a junior partner in Mr. Abe's governing coalition.
After that meeting, Mr. Yamaguchi, of the New Komeito Party, told reporters that he had delivered a letter from Mr. Abe to the Chinese leader, though he did not disclose the letter's contents. He also said that he suggested to Mr. Xi that the two nations hold a summit meeting, to which the Chinese leader replied that he would "seriously consider" the idea.
But Mr. Xi seemed on Monday to cast cold water onto hopes of a quick resolution to the dispute, saying that he would not bargain over China's territorial interests, though he did not specifically mention the island chain.
The diplomatic maneuvering underscores the emotions in both nations. In China, the islands are seen as the last unreturned piece of Chinese territory seized during the building of Japan's empire more than a century ago, and thus a sign that Japan remains unrepentant. To many Japanese, the islands have become emblematic of the broader challenge that their nation, long Asia's strongest power, faces from the emergence of an increasingly powerful China seemingly bent on settling old scores.
Many Japanese officials now say they think China -- by sending government ships and aircraft near the islands almost daily -- has embarked on a long-term strategy aimed at pressing Japan to admit that a territorial dispute exists, and then eventually to agree to some form of joint stewardship, if not conceding the islands to China altogether.
In a show of American support for its longtime ally, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Jan. 20 that the United States opposed unilateral actions to try to undermine Japanese control of the islands. Beijing responded angrily, urging her to watch her words.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.