Japan business chiefs head to China amid island row

TOKYO (AFP) - A high-powered Japanese business delegation headed to Beijing on Thursday, hoping to meet new political leaders and soothe ties ruffled by a territorial spat.

The 16-member mission from the Japan-China Economic Association, led by Toyota chairman Fujio Cho, left for their annual three-day mission originally scheduled for last September but postponed after anti-Japanese rallies swept China over an island dispute between the two countries.

A resulting consumer boycott dented demand for Japanese goods in China, a key market for the electronics and cars that are the mainstay of Japan's manufacturing sector.

The group also includes Mr Hiromasa Yonekura, who chairs Japan's biggest business lobby, Keidanren.

"We wanted to make the annual visit before the end of the (fiscal) year", which finishes this month, said a spokesman for the association. "The National People's Congress is over, and this appeared to be a good time for a visit."

The business mission was asking for meetings with senior figures in the new Chinese government, including Premier Li Keqiang, but has not yet been able to confirm if they will go ahead, she said.

Later on Thursday, they were expected to meet Vice-Commerce Minister Chen Jian and former State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan, who leads the China-Japan Friendship Association, Kyodo News agency said.

China is Japan's biggest trade partner, but the relationship has been badly damaged as the two sides spar over disputed islands in the East China Sea, which Tokyo controls as the Senkakus but Beijing claims as the Diaoyus.