A flurry of exchanges between China and Japan in the absence of high-level political contacts highlights efforts on both sides to mend ties, observers said.
The momentum is expected to continue in the near future, but observers are cautiously optimistic as they said the exchanges only have limited influence on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration.
Their comments came after a meeting between Zhang Dejiang, China's top legislator, and a group of senior Japanese lawmakers led by the vice-president of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Masahiko Komura, on Monday.
The bipartisan delegation's three-day visit to Beijing, which ends on Tuesday, is the first time that a senior lawmaker from Japan's ruling party has met anyone from China's top leadership since Abe assumed office in December 2012.
The visit will be closely followed by another delegation to China led by Takeshi Noda, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party's Research Commission on the Tax System. from Wednesday to Friday. Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe also visited China in April.
However, there has been little high-level political contact between the two countries since Tokyo unilaterally announced it had"nationalized" part of China's Diaoyu Islands in September 2012. Relations worsened when Abe visited Tokyo's militaristic Yasukuni Shrine in December.
Zhang said it is in the fundamental interests of the two countries and their peoples to continue friendly exchanges, but the Japanese government has created difficulties.
China always values friendly exchanges with Japan, Zhang said, urging the Japanese side to face up to history and reality.
Komura said relations should be beneficial to both countries, but instead they have deteriorated.
"We would like to be of use to help the two countries return to a strategically mutually beneficial relationship," Komura said at the beginning of their meeting.
Shen Shishun, an Asia-Pacific studies researcher at the China Foundation for International Studies, said Zhang's meeting with Japanese lawmakers showed Beijing's sincerity about improving ties with Japan.
"It's not true that the Chinese leadership refuses any contact with the Japanese side. China values communication with friendly parties, while the higher-level exchanges depend on what the Abe administration will do," Shen said.
Wang Ping, a Japanese studies researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said both sides realize that the impasse has hurt their interests and international images.
There is especially growing opposition against Abe's right-wing stance. Increasing communication with China would improve his diplomatic image at home, Wang said.
"Abe has recently softened his rhetoric, but the opposition forces are not strong or unified enough to influence him," she added. "It is unlikely for Abe to change the plan of breaking the post-war shackles."
When asked whether recent visits by Japanese delegations to China signaled a warming relationship, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China welcomes people from all walks of life in Japan to play a positive role in boosting mutual understanding and improving ties.
Speaking at a regular news conference on Monday, Hua said it was Japanese leaders' wrongdoings that undermined the foundation of the relationship, and urged Japan to take practical moves to show sincerity.
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