[TOKYO] Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida will travel to China on Friday in a bid to restore momentum to ties between Asia's two largest economies as they argue over territory.
Mr Kishida is set to meet his counterpart Wang Yi and other senior officials during the visit - the first by a Japanese foreign minister in four and a half years. No Chinese foreign minister has visited Japan since Nov 2009.
While Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe overcame disagreements over territory and history to meet in Nov 2014 and April of last year, the fragile rapprochement has since frayed.
Neither side can afford to allow tensions to worsen, given a US$344 billion trade relationship, the lingering risk of a maritime clash over disputed islands close to Taiwan and the growing threat from North Korean missiles.
A Japanese foreign ministry official, who declined to be identified in line with ministry policy, said the relationship is still very difficult. The official added that while Japan is keen for ties to improve, it is also the responsibility of China.
Japan contacted China this month about sending Shotaro Yachi, a close Mr Abe aide, to Beijing in a bid to set up a summit this year, Kyodo News reported Thursday. The Japanese foreign ministry official denied that such an approach had been made.
Mr Xi and Mr Abe are both scheduled to attend a G-20 meeting in Hangzhou, China in September.
Mr Abe and Mr Xi have not met bilaterally for more than a year. They missed their latest chance to sit down about a month ago at a nuclear security summit in Washington. A ministerial meeting on the economy planned for "early" this year also hasn't materialized, and there's been no announcement on Japan's scheduled hosting of a trilateral summit with South Korea and China this year.
The hiatus comes as Japan steps up its criticism of Beijing over its behavior in the South China Sea, where China has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres of land over the past two years as it builds a platform to assert its claims to more than 80 per cent of the water.
China, for its part, regularly warns against Japanese interference in the dispute and chides the Abe government for not doing more to deal with the legacy of the country's wartime past.
"Japan's wrong approach to history and other issues has in recent years dealt a body blow to Japan-China relations," China's foreign minister Wang Yi said last month.
"Thanks to the efforts of wise people on both sides there are signs of improvement in the Sino-Japanese relationship, but there is little ground for optimism."
China was also riled by a statement issued in Hiroshima earlier this month by foreign ministers from the Group of Seven nations in which they expressed concerns about the situation in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, where Japan and China dispute the sovereignty of a group of islets.
China regularly sends coast guard vessels into Japanese-administered waters around a group of disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyutai in China, and Japan has backed US efforts to challenge China's claims in the South China Sea by sending warships near its outposts there.
"We express our strong opposition to any intimidating, coercive or provocative unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions," the G-7 ministers said in reference to the two seas.
China responded by saying the G-7 should focus on economic issues and stay out of the disputes.
After the trip to Beijing, Mr Kishida will spend the next week visiting Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. He will make a policy speech in Bangkok on Japan's diplomacy in South East Asia.