BEIJING/TOKYO (Reuters) - China has ruled out the possibility of a proposed summit with Japan after Tokyo suggested the meeting in a bid to defuse an increasingly bitter territorial row, the official China Daily reported on Tuesday.
The report, quoting a statement by an unidentified Chinese official made on Monday, coincided with a visit to Beijing by Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki.
Saiki’s visit is the latest effort by Tokyo to improve ties soured by the row over tiny, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries.
Chinese and Japanese officials were tight-lipped about who Saiki would meet in Beijing, where he arrived on Monday.
Hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who cemented his grip on power in an upper house election last week, has been signaling a desire for dialogue with China - although he has also rejected any conditions set by Beijing.
At the same time, Japan has raised its assessment of the risk of China’s military buildup and maritime assertiveness.
The unidentified Chinese official urged the Japanese government to take concrete measures to improve strained ties rather than “empty slogans”, the China Daily reported.
In Tokyo, a Japanese foreign ministry source said he had not seen the China Daily report and could not comment on it directly, but a summit could still be held at the right time.
“It is true no concrete date is set for a leaders’ summit or foreign ministers’ summit,” the Japanese source said. “But this does not mean there will never be one in the future.”
The China Daily also said statements by Abe adviser Isao Iijima that a summit between Abe and President Xi Jinping could occur in the “not-too-distant future” were misleading.
Iijima’s statements were based on conversations with Chinese officials in Beijing in mid-July.
The Chinese foreign ministry said on its website on Monday that Iijima had not met any Chinese government officials recently, despite reports on Sunday that he had.
The English-language China Daily quoted the Chinese official as saying: “What Iijima told reporters on Sunday is not true and is fabricated, based on the needs of Japan’s domestic politics.”
Often fragile Sino-Japanese ties have been further strained since September, when the territorial row over the East China Sea islands flared following the nationalization of the islands by Abe’s predecessor last September.
Concern that Abe, who came to power in December, wants to recast Japan’s wartime history with a less apologetic tone added to the tension. Critics have also accused the Chinese Communist Party of manipulating domestic opinion through anti-Japanese propaganda to buttress its own legitimacy.
Experts in Japan say both sides, as well as Tokyo’s security ally the United States, would like to calm the tension to avoid an unintended clash near the islands, where Japanese and Chinese planes and patrol ships have been playing cat-and-mouse.
Abe may also be hoping to repeat one of the few successes of his troubled 2006-2007 term in office, when he thawed ties with China that had frayed during the five-year stint of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.
Analysts said, however, that Abe may have been overconfident about prospects for talks following his ruling bloc’s big win in the July 21 upper house election. The victory ended a parliamentary deadlock and set the stage for Japan’s first long-term government since Koizumi’s 2001-2006 term.
“I think the Abe government got confident thinking that now ... that they have a secure majority, China should know that Abe is here for the long term and they have to deal with him,” said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.
Nakano also said it was unlikely China would want to commit to any summit at least before seeing whether Abe or other top officials, such as Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine on the emotive August 15 anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War Two.
A visit to Yasukuni would outrage public opinion in China, where many view the shrine as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism because it honors Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal along with war dead.
“It would be surprising for China to agree to a fast improvement in relations before August 15,” Nakano said.
Experts say the main sticking point to a Sino-Japanese summit is whether the two sides can find a way to set aside the row and focus on other aspects of relations between the world’s second- and third-biggest economies.
China wants Japan first to acknowledge that a formal dispute exists, a step that Tokyo has rejected for fear it would undermine its claim to sovereignty of the isles, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, the experts said.
Reporting by Pete Sweeney in SHANGHAI and Linda Sieg in TOKYO; Editing by Paul Tait