Japan's Deputy PM Taro Aso meets China's Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli: Reports

BEIJING (AFP) - Japan's Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso met China's Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli on Wednesday, Japanese reports said, as the Asian rivals pave the way for a possible summit next month.

Mr Aso and Mr Zhang chatted for "minutes" on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) finance ministers' gathering in Beijing, ahead of the forum's annual summit next month, according to Japanese media. "This was meant to be a step toward making the final arrangements for a Japan-China summit," the Nikkei said.

Mr Aso also serves as Tokyo's finance minister.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been pushing for his first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The two conservative leaders have not held direct talks, and their nations remain deeply at odds over a disputed island chain and bitter memories of Japan's aggression in China and elsewhere in Asia up to and during World War II.

But the two sides have made visible steps in recent weeks towards a possible Abe-Xi summit.

Mr Abe made brief contact with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang last week on the sidelines of an international gathering in Italy, followed by other meetings between senior officials and a visit to China by a major Japanese business delegation.

The Japanese business community has been watching with keen interest whether Beijing and Tokyo can use Apec as an opportunity to ease tensions, if not to reset ties.

The two nations have had testy relations for decades, but they nosedived to historic lows after Japan in 2012 nationalised a set of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea - which Tokyo controls as the Senkakus but which Beijing claims as the Diaoyus.

The purchase prompted angry anti-Japan protests in China, where Japan Inc. has faced greater difficulties doing business than before.

Coast guard units from Japan and China now routinely play cat and mouse around the islands as both sides seek to assert sovereignty.

Beijing also sparked regional controversy - as well as condemnation from Washington - late last year with its unilateral declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone which overlaps the islands.

China has repeatedly voiced its distrust of Mr Abe, portraying him as a historical revisionist whose conservative beliefs are seen as symbolised by his past visits to and continued support for a controversial Tokyo war shrine.

He made an offering to the shrine last week.