BEIJING -- A senior envoy handed China’s leader a cordial letter from Japan’s prime minister Friday in the highest-level contact between the sides since tensions spiked in September over an island dispute, though the meeting yielded little beyond commitments to hold further contact.
The letter from Shinzo Abe to Xi Jinping, as seen by The Associated Press, did not contain any substantial overtures, but it sent wishes of good health, spoke of the two countries’ "shared responsibility for peace and prosperity" in the region and said Friday’s meeting was a "valuable opportunity to share views."
The meeting between Xi and the envoy, senior lawmaker Natsuo Yamaguchi, appeared to dial back some of the intensity of the dispute, which has raised concerns over a possible armed conflict.
Xi told Yamaguchi that China attached "great importance" to his visit, held in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People following four months of rising friction that have included violent protests in China and the scrambling of fighter jets by both countries.
"Mr. Yamaguchi visits China at a period in which China-Japan relations face a special situation," Xi said, before reporters were asked to leave the meeting.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Yamaguchi said both men emphasized the need for discussion and calm.
Yamaguchi is the leader of New Komeito, the junior party in Abe’s ruling coalition, but not a member of the government. He arrived on Tuesday and met earlier with lower-ranking officials including Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and the head of the ruling Communist Party’s international department.
Tensions soared after Japan’s government bought the uninhabited islands, known in Chinese as Diaoyu and Japanese as Senkaku, from their private Japanese owners in September.
Both sides have since called for dialogue to avoid an armed confrontation, though Japan has rejected China’s demand that it acknowledge a sovereignty dispute. Tokyo says is clear the islands belong to Japan.
The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of gas, oil and other undersea resources. For Chinese, the dispute has reawakened bitter memories of Japan’s conquest of Chinese territory beginning in 1895 and its brutal World War II occupation of much of the country, for which many Chinese feel Japan has yet to truly apologize.
Commenting on the meeting, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Japan needed to "face up to history and reality, take real action, work with China on seeking an effective way through dialogue to properly control and resolve" the islands issue.
"Japan should respect the national sentiments of the Chinese people and handle historical issues correctly," Hong said.
Placed under U.S. control after World War II, the islands were returned to Japan in 1972, though Beijing says they have been Chinese territory for centuries. Taiwan also claims the islands.
Japan’s nationalization of the islands sparked anti-Japanese rioting in China and prompted Beijing to dispatch marine surveillance ships to them on a regular basis to confront Japanese coast guard cutters assigned to protect the area.
Trade and tourism between the countries have dropped off sharply and almost all bilateral meetings between their officials have been canceled.
Earlier this month, both sides scrambled fighter jets to trail each other’s planes -- underscoring the potential for accidents or miscalculations that could spark a clash, possibly drawing in Japan’s treaty partner the United States.
In a commentary issued as Friday’s meeting was taking place, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said Japan sparked the crisis and must take the first steps in restoring trust. While acknowledging Japan’s desire for talks, it said progress in ties would depend on tangible actions.
"On the one hand, the Japanese government stressed the importance of its relationship with China. On the other, it still stubbornly sticks to its wrong stance on the Diaoyu Islands issue," Xinhua said.
On Thursday, Japanese ships acted to prevent activists sailing from Taiwan from landing on the islands.
Also on Thursday, Japan detained a Chinese fishing boat and eight crew members for illegal fishing off Nagasaki prefecture, hundreds of kilometers (miles) away from the disputed islands.