A senior Chinese leader is calling for talks with Japan to resolve an increasingly bitter dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea.
Jia Qinglin, who heads China's top political advisory body, made the comments during a meeting with former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.
The state-run China Daily quoted Jia as saying Beijing places “great importance” on its ties with Japan, and that the dispute should be resolved in order to preserve regional stability.
His remarks are in contrast to Beijing's recent hard-line rhetoric on the long-running dispute, which has worsened significantly in the past few months.
For its part, Japan has rejected talks about the islands, saying there can be no discussions over territory it has long considered its own.
Mr. Hatoyama, the ex-prime minister who supports closer relations between the two Asian powers, told Jia that Tokyo should end its policy of not recognizing the dispute.
The Japanese government later criticized Mr. Hatoyama. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said it was “extremely regrettable” that a former prime minister would make such remarks, adding they were “clearly opposite” to Japan's position.
Hatoyama, who is making a private trip to China, pushed for closer relations with Japan's neighbors during his time as prime minister from September 2009 to June 2010.
China-Japan relations reached a low point last year after Japan nationalized some of the uninhabited islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Since then, Beijing has sent regular patrol boats to “monitor” the Japanese-controlled islands, which are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and potential energy deposits.
Both countries also have sent fighter jets to the islands in recent weeks, raising fears of a conflict between Asia's two largest economies.
Japan annexed the islets in the late 19th century. China claimed sovereignty over the archipelago in 1971, saying ancient maps show it has been Chinese territory for centuries.