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TOKYO (Reuters) - Despite tough talk on the campaign trail, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will try to avoid a serious clash with China if his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wins Sunday's general election, as expected, senior party officials said.
Ties between Asia's two biggest economies took a dive after Japan nationalized islets at the heart of a long dispute in September, prompting violent protests in China and a standoff in waters around the isles that has raised fears of a clash.
In a bid to underscore Japan's control over the East China Sea islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, the LDP has promised to consider manning them and building structures on them, a move bound to outrage China.
LDP lawmakers knowledgeable on foreign policy, however, suggest that an Abe administration, while remaining assertive in the territorial row, would be keen to improve ties and strike a pragmatic tone with its Asian neighbor.
"We don't want to do anything to further worsen the current state of affairs," Yoshitaka Shindo, an LDP lawmaker outspoken on territorial disputes, told Reuters in an interview.
"We need to calm down the situation and smooth over our relations as Japan doesn't want to run into any military collision with any neighboring country," Shindo said.
The LDP's tough campaign tone seems to have been intended to appeal to a growing sense of nationalism among some voters and keep them from turning to the right-leaning Japan Restoration Party, newly founded by popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto.
Abe proved he can be pragmatic in his first term in office when he surprised many by moving quickly to mend ties with Beijing.
He chose China as the destination of his first overseas trip and refrained from going to the Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, seen by many as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.
"We have to set up a hotline between Tokyo and Beijing, so any potential accidents don't escalate into something bigger," said Yoshimasa Hayashi, a former defense minister and a junior cabinet minister during Abe's previous term in power in 2006.
Ships from both countries have been shadowing each other near the disputed islands and on Thursday, a Chinese government plane entered what Japan considers its airspace over the area.
Japan scrambled fighter jets and protested to China in response.
Hayashi told Reuters that Japan-China talks now being conducted by diplomats should be elevated to the political level.
"This can take some time, but that is not a problem. We have to create such a framework and continue our talks," he said.
Still, analysts and Abe's advisers say that while Abe may be cautious ahead of an election for parliament's upper house next summer, his stance toward China will inevitably harden compared with his previous term given a tilt to the right in Japan's political sphere.
"This time around, Abe is more reliant on his right-wing backers who formed a part of the broader coalition that helped him get elected as the LDP chief," said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.
"It seems that his voters have also moved to the right and expect a hardened stance."
Editing by Linda Sieg and Robert Birsel