TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may make a ritual offering to a shrine seen as a symbol of Japan's former militarism, the media said on Wednesday - a move likely to anger China and place at risk tentative diplomatic overtures by Tokyo.
An offering on Thursday, the emotive anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War Two, would highlight the fine line Mr Abe seeks to tread between mending frayed China ties and appealing to his conservative support base. A similar move in April infuriated China and South Korea, both victims of wartime aggression.
Mr Abe is likely to skip visiting the Yasukuni Shrine to war dead, where people convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are also honoured. But he may make the offering through a representative of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japanese media said.
Neither the prime minister's office nor LDP headquarters could confirm the media reports.
Mr Abe and other conservatives say it is only natural to pay respects at Yasukuni to those who died for their country, especially on Aug 15.
Tokyo hopes, however, that if Mr Abe stays away on the day it could score points with China and help pave the way for a summit that Japan has been signaling it wants.
At least two cabinet members and a ruling party executive are likely to visit the shrine in central Tokyo, prompting China's Foreign Ministry to say last week that visits by Japanese political leaders were unacceptable in any form.
A group of conservative lawmakers is also expected to pay their respects.
Chinese state media have launched a barrage of invective against Japan in recent weeks, aimed at Mr Abe and his plans to strengthen the armed forces, the country's latest step away from the constraints of its pacifist post-war constitution.
But the Chinese ambassador to Japan, Mr Cheng Yonghua, struck a more conciliatory tone during a meeting in Tokyo with former Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda, whose father oversaw a key friendship treaty in 1978.
"Experience proves that peaceful coexistence and friendly cooperation between China and Japan is in both sides'interests," the official Xinhua news agency cited Mr Cheng as saying late on Tuesday.
"Both countries need to contain the negative trend in their relationship without delay, overcome difficulties, resolve problems and work hard to improve ties."
Relations between Japan and China have been strained for months, largely because of a dispute over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The row deepened last September when Japan bought several of the islands from a private owner.
Ship and aircraft have for months played a cat-and-mouse game near the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, boosting tensions, with Chinese ships venturing in and out of what Japan considers its territorial waters.
Last week, Japan summoned a Chinese diplomat and protested after four Chinese ships remained near the islands for more than 24 hours.
Mr Abe has called for dialogue with China, though he has rejected any conditions on talks, and several of his advisers have visited Beijing in the past few months.
But China has denied that any talks are taking place on holding a summit and has shown no inclination in public of even wanting such talks.