Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Friday said that China and Japan should address sensitive issues between the two countries effectively and in a timely manner, after receiving a personal letter from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeking to mitigate tensions over the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
Xi, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, made the remarks during a meeting with Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the New Komeito party, the junior partner in Japan's ruling bloc.
Yamaguchi is the first senior member of the Japanese ruling coalition to travel to China since Japan announced the "nationalization" of the Diaoyu Islands in September 2012.
Xi told Yamaguchi that China's position on the Diaoyu Islands issue is consistent and clear.
"The Japanese side should face up to history as well as reality and make joint efforts with China through real action to seek effective methods for appropriately controlling and resolving the issue through dialogue and consultation," a news release from China's foreign ministry quoted Xi as saying.
Xi noted that the Chinese government's policy of developing relations with Japan remains unchanged.
Yamaguchi delivered to Xi a letter from Abe, in which he pledged to take into account the overall situation and push forward the Japan-China strategic reciprocal ties.
"I firmly believe our differences with China can be resolved," Yamaguchi told reporters after his meeting with Xi, Reuters reported.
"We agreed that it is important to continue dialogue with the aim of holding a summit between the two leaders," he said.
According to the Tokyo-based Asahi Shimbun paper, Yamaguchi quoted Xi as saying that "to do so, arranging the proper environment is of vital importance."
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao didn't hold bilateral meetings with former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at the ASEM Summit and the East Asia Summit last year due to the territorial row.
However, neither the news release from China's foreign ministry nor the Xinhua News Agency reported on Xi's remarks on the high-level summit.
Yamaguchi arrived in Beijing on Tuesday, and held talks with Tang Jiaxuan, former Chinese State councilor, foreign minister Yang Jiechi and Wang Jiarui, head of the International Department of the CPC Central Committee, respectively before securing a meeting with Xi on the final day of his visit.
The meeting with Xi was set up almost at the last minute, with some Japanese media pessimistically speculating it wouldn't happen.
Hu Lingyuan, a professor with the Center for Japanese Studies at Fudan University, told the Global Times Friday that the Chinese side's hesitation about the meeting originated from its skepticism over the sincerity of the Abe administration.
From January 16 to 19, Abe paid his first overseas visit as prime minister to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, in an apparent bid to capitalize on the growing anxiety over China's rise in the region.
Japan Coast Guard vessels Thursday fired water cannon to obstruct a fishing boat with Taiwan activists from sailing to the islets. Taiwan's coast guard ships responded with water spray. And three marine surveillance ships from the Chinese mainland also arrived adjacent to the waters.
"The personal letter from Abe came after his whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia. The sincerity of the letter is doubtful," Hu commented.
Though doubtful over the motives of the Japanese government, China has relatively close relations with the New Komeito party, which has been involved in previous reconciliation efforts with China. "That explains why Xi finally met Yamaguchi on the last day of his visit," Hu said.
The meeting between Xi and the New Komeito head has drawn extensive coverage from Japanese media.
An opinion piece on Tokyo-based Chinese-language news portal ribenxinwen.com Friday commented that whether Yamaguchi could secure a meeting with Xi and whether Xi would accept Abe's letter was an indication on the Chinese leadership's will to hold dialogue with Abe.
The article interpreted the meeting as an encouraging signal that the Chinese government showed its sincerity in improving Sino-Japanese relations, and the door for China-Japan dialogue is still "wide open."
However, Hu struck a cautious note on the progress made by Yamaguchi's visit, saying that the New Komeito leader, who holds no official position in Abe's administration, couldn't do much to solve the Diaoyu spat.
"But it's always good to show the world that the two countries still have their own way to maintain exchanges," he said.
Separately, the Japanese government announced on Friday that it had decided to revise the country's two current defense programs, which were made by the government of the Democratic Party of Japan in 2010.
An interim report about the revision will be presented in June and the government hopes to map out the new programs by the end of 2013.
Japan's Kyodo News said that the plan was made to boost the nation's defense capabilities amid an "increasingly severe" regional security environment.
The Abe government cited the recent rocket launch by North Korea and China's maritime and air patrols near the disputed Diaoyu Islands as decisive factors.
Agencies contributed to this story