Japan PM Abe holds out olive branch to China after months of tension

TOKYO (AFP) - Hawkish Japanese premier Shinzo Abe held out an olive branch to China on Tuesday, sending a letter to Beijing's leader-in-waiting to be hand delivered by a coalition ally.

The move comes after months of diplomatic tussles between China and Japan over the sovereignty of a disputed island chain in the East China Sea that have seen repeated maritime encounters.

Mr Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the New Komeito party, was expected to stay in Beijing for four days, during which time he would meet China's incoming president, Xi Jinping, and hand over a letter from Abe, local media reported.

"Japan-China relations have been faced with various kinds of friction, and political dialogue has not been held for a long time," Mr Yamaguchi told reporters ahead of his departure.

"I would like to make a step toward opening the door to normalising our relations," he said.

But Mr Yamaguchi, who has no official government role, said Tokyo has no plan to compromise over the island row.

"Our stance is that no territorial problem exists. That's a shared recognition among the government and coalition."

China has repeatedly sent ships to waters near the disputed islands since Japan nationalised some of the chain in September, a move that triggered a diplomatic dispute and huge anti-Japan demonstrations across China.

Beijing has also sent air patrols near the Tokyo-controlled islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan, but claimed by Beijing as the Diaoyus.

On Sunday, Beijing rebuked the United States after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a veiled warning to China not to challenge Tokyo's control over the chain, which is believed to sit atop vast mineral reserves.