BEIJING - Top Chinese leader Xi Jinping yesterday accepted a letter from Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and affirmed the importance of using dialogue to cool tensions.
Mr Abe's emissary was Mr Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of New Komeito, the smaller of Japan's two ruling parties.
He is the most senior Japanese lawmaker to meet Mr Xi since Mr Abe took office last month pledging to beef up defence of a cluster of isles claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo.
Mr Yamaguchi said Mr Xi was open to the idea of a bilateral summit. The Chinese leader said high-level talks were very important and that Beijing would "seriously consider", he told reporters after the meeting.
In his letter, Mr Abe said both countries bear responsibility for peaceful development in the region and beyond.
"I'm willing to push for the advance of mutually beneficial strategic Sino-Japanese ties, for the sake of the big picture," he said in the letter, according to state news agency Xinhua.
Bilateral relations are at their worst since the two neighbours normalised ties in 1972. Tensions flared after Tokyo nationalised a group of East China Sea isles that it calls Senkaku last September. The isles are claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.
Mr Xi yesterday urged Japan to honour their four bilateral documents, which include the 1978 Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Both sides had agreed informally to shelve the isle dispute during treaty negotiations.
Mr Xi said that China and Japan "should shoulder national and historical responsibilities as well as display political wisdom, just like the elder generations of leaders of the two countries, to overcome difficulties and advance China-Japan relations", Xinhua said.
Mr Yamaguchi's visit comes as Taiwanese activists were turned back by the Japanese coast guard on Thursday after they tried to land on the isles, which are also claimed by Taiwan.
The same day, a Chinese fishing boat and its eight crew members were detained for illegal fishing off Nagasaki in south-western Japan.
Observers fear that the risk of an armed confrontation between the former foes has gone up in the past few months with both sides stepping up patrols of the sea.
Mr Yamaguchi, whose party holds pacifist views in contrast to its hawkish coalition partner, the Liberal Democratic Party, has met Mr Xi thrice before.
There had been speculation in the Chinese media earlier that he might not get to meet Mr Xi as Beijing doubts the sincerity of Mr Abe, who has made a flurry of visits to South-east Asian countries since becoming Premier.
The visit looks to be effective, said Tsinghua international relations scholar Liu Jiangyong, even though Mr Yamaguchi is not a member of Mr Abe's Cabinet.
"It can pave the way for leaders of both sides to have a dialogue," he told The Straits Times.
It will have to be seen how the Japanese media and government react to the visit, he added.
Yesterday, Japan's Kyodo News reported that Japan welcomed Mr Xi's remarks on a future bilateral summit.