Japan PM's letter appeal to China leader

BEIJING, Jan 25, 2013 (AFP) -- Japanese premier Shinzo Abe made a direct appeal to Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping for the two countries to improve relations amid their bitter row over disputed islands, Beijing said Friday.

Tokyo's hawkish new leader said in a letter to Xi that he would like to "push forward Japan-China strategic relationships for mutual benefit", foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a regular briefing.

The personal missive was handed to Xi by Abe's coalition ally Natsuo Yamaguchi in a meeting in Beijing aimed at smoothing links between the world's second- and third-largest economies, which have been heavily damaged by the dispute.

"In the letter, Abe said that Japan-China relations are one of the most important bilateral relationships (and) the two countries share common responsibilities for peaceful development for Asia-Pacific and the world," the spokesman added.

Yamaguchi, head of the New Komeito party, the junior partner in Japan's ruling coalition, is the most senior Japanese parliamentarian to visit China since the long-running row over the islands intensified in September when Tokyo nationalised part of the chain.

The move triggered a diplomatic dispute and huge anti-Japan demonstrations across China.

Beijing has repeatedly sent ships and aircraft near the Tokyo-controlled islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan but claimed by Beijing as the Diaoyus. The chain could sit atop vast mineral reserves, it is believed.

At the Great Hall of the People in Beijing both sides expressed appreciation for the trip before beginning private talks.

"Mr Yamaguchi visits China at a period in which Sino-Japanese relations face a special situation. We attach great importance to your visit," said Xi.

Yamaguchi -- who has no official role in the Tokyo government -- said he was "incomparably happy" about the meeting.

But neither side appeared to offer substantive concessions.

According to a statement on the foreign ministry website, during the meeting Xi stressed that the two sides had to "properly handle sensitive issues".

But it re-iterated China's position that "Japan should face up to history and reality (and) take concrete actions to work with China".

Earlier this week, Yamaguchi said he hoped to improve ties but that Tokyo had no plans to compromise over the islands.

"I would like to make a step toward opening the door to normalising our relations," he told reporters before his departure.

Regarding the islands, he said: "Our stance is that no territorial problem exists. That's a shared recognition among the government and coalition."