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Japanese Lawmaker in China for Talks on Island Dispute

Japan's New Komeito's party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi (C) accompanied by the Japanese ambassador to China Masato Kitera (L) waves his hand as he walks out from the VIP exit of Beijing Capital International airport, January 22, 2013.
A Japanese ruling party envoy is in China for talks aimed at reducing tensions over a bitter territorial dispute.

Natsuo Yamaguchi arrived Tuesday in Beijing, where he is delivering a letter from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Yamaguchi hopes to meet with new Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other senior leaders during his four-day visit.

Earlier, he expressed hopes the visit would help normalize relations and lead to a bilateral summit.

Yamaguchi is the first Japanese lawmaker to visit China since the hawkish government of Abe came to power in December.

Both sides have given recent indications they are ready to de-escalate the dispute over the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

Last week, Jia Qinlin, who heads China's top political advisory body, called for talks. He said China places "great importance" on its ties with Japan.

The dispute worsened considerably after Japan last year nationalized some of the islands, known in Japanese as Senkaku and in Chinese as Diaoyu.

But although the dispute may be cooling, there are no signs that either nation intends to back down from its claim to the islands, which are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and potential energy deposits.

Yamaguchi, the Japanese envoy, told reporters Japan still views the islands as its own territory, and that it does not formally recognize that a dispute exists.

Chinese state media Tuesday quoted a foreign ministry spokesperson as saying "Japan's so-called existence or control" of the area is "illegal and invalid."

Although there have been no clashes, both countries 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.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.

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