TOKYO (REUTERS) - The head of Japan's National Security Council, a close ally of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, will visit Beijing this week, China's foreign ministry said on Wednesday, fuelling speculation of a full-scale leaders' summit as early as September.
Sino-Japanese ties, long bedevilled by China's bitter memories of Japan's wartime aggression and a row over tiny islands in the East China Sea, have improved since Abe met Chinese President Xi Jinping in November at an Asia-Pacific summit in Beijing.
The two met for a second mini-summit in April at an Asia-African leaders' gathering in Jakarta and Japan wants to keep the emerging thaw on track, while ensuring Beijing realises the risks of an increasingly assertive maritime military policy.
"During the visit both sides will hold a high-level Sino-Japan political dialogue, and exchange views on Sino-Japan relations and issues of mutual concern," China's foreign ministry said in a statement announcing National Security Council head Shotaro Yachi's visit from Thursday.
It said Yachi had been invited by China's top diplomat, State Councillor Yang Jiechi.
Ex-prime minister Yasuo Fukuda, who played a key role in arranging last November's breakthrough meeting between Abe and Xi, is already in China, Kyodo news agency reported. Fukuda's office had no immediate comment.
Over the weekend, Chinese state media quoted Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping as saying that Xi had already invited Abe to attend events to mark the end of the war.
Japanese government sources have said another Xi-Abe chat could well take place this year, although some said China probably first wants to see a planned statement by Abe marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two.
Abe's critics worry he wants to dilute past government apologies, though he has said he will uphold them.
China is also keeping a wary eye on Abe's push for a more muscular defence policy that would ease the pacifist constitution's constraints on military activity abroad.
High-level dialogue, however, has already resumed, including Finance Minister Taro Aso's recent meeting with his Chinese counterpart. "For sure, China is aiming strategically to repair ties with Japan. And we have to do the same," Koichi Hagiuda, a special aide to Abe in his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), told Reuters in a recent interview. He did not rule out a visit by Abe to Beijing later this year.
University of Tokyo professor Akio Takahara said a September summit was possible. "It depends on what the deal would be. What would Abe get?" he said.
A successful summit with Xi could bolster Abe's support rates, which have sagged over public doubts about his security policy.