Japanese lawmakers meet top Chinese official amid soured ties

BEIJING (AFP) - One of China's most powerful officials hosted lawmakers from Japan on Monday as relations strained by territorial and historical disputes prevent a formal summit between their leaders.

State television showed footage of a bipartisan delegation of senior Japanese lawmakers meeting Zhang Dejiang, the third-ranking member of China's power hierarchy.

Zhang spoke with Masahiko Komura, a former foreign minister and now vice president of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the China Central Television footage showed.

It marked the first time that a senior lawmaker from Japan's ruling party has met a member of China's powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee since Abe became prime minister in late 2012, Japan's Kyodo news agency said.

Xi and Abe have yet to hold an official summit as relations between Tokyo and Beijing have fallen to their lowest point in years.

Vessels and aircraft from China have regularly approached disputed East China Sea islands after Japan nationalised some of them in September 2012, inflaming a long-running territorial dispute.

China also regularly expresses anger over issues related to Japan's invasion and occupation of parts of the country in the 1930s and 1940s and is particularly upset when Japanese officials visit a controversial Tokyo war shrine.

"We would like to be of use to make (our two countries) return to a strategically mutually beneficial relationship," Komura said at the start of the meeting with Zhang, Kyodo reported.

The visit by the Japanese delegation "marks a determination" to push soured relations ahead, Zhang said in return, according to Kyodo.

At the meeting, Zhang said that in recent years the Japanese government has taken a mistaken approach on issues of history and territory, state-run China Radio International (CRI) reported.

That has damaged relations, Zhang said, adding that Beijing hopes Tokyo will accurately face history.

The lawmakers told Zhang that Abe is ready to hold a formal meeting with Xi on the sidelines of the Apec forum meeting in China later this year, Kyodo reported.

Zhang promised to relay the message to Xi, Komura told reporters after the meeting.

Xi has headed China's ruling Communist Party since November of 2012 and became state president in March 2013.

Abe became Japan's leader in December 2012.

They have so far only met briefly and informally on the sidelines of international meetings.

Last month nearly 150 Japanese lawmakers paid homage at Yasukuni Shrine, which honours millions of Japan's war dead, including senior officials who were executed for war crimes.

Abe's own visit to the shrine on December 26 sparked anger in China and South Korea and even spawned rare criticism from key ally the United States, which said it was "disappointed" over the Japanese leader's action.

Japan's mission to Beijing consists of nine lawmakers of both ruling and opposition parties.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Monday welcomed efforts to improve bilateral ties, but blamed Japan for tensions.

"It is clear that the China-Japan relationship has met serious obstacles and the crux of this problem is clear to all," Hua said at a regular briefing.

"That is because the Japanese leaders went against the trend of the times and have shaken the foundation of the China-Japan relationship."