Beijing and Tokyo are planning for vice-ministerial talks to break the Diaoyu Islands deadlock, but observers say spats over sovereignty issues will continue as negotiations take place.
In addition, US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns will fly in to mediate the dispute with Tokyo and Beijing on his tour to Asia next week, a move experts said is aimed at collecting information and shaping future policies.
Even before the vice-ministerial talks, Luo Zhaohui, director of the Foreign Ministry's department of Asian affairs, was invited to Tokyo on Thursday to meet his Japanese counterpart Shinsuke Sugiyama, director general for Asian and Oceanian affairs at Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"The department chiefs' talk was made to brace for the expected reconciliation on the Diaoyu Islands dispute between vice-foreign ministers from both sides," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters on Friday.
Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba on Friday confirmed the vice-ministerial talk plan and said both sides need to think calmly as communications continue, yet he added that "the important thing is that we cannot give over what we cannot give over".
Kyodo News Agency said Luo's Tokyo tour, which ended on Friday, "may help ease the frayed ties", and he is the first key diplomat visiting the Japanese capital since the island country on Sept 11 finalized an illegal "purchase" of the Diaoyu Islands.
Lu Yaodong, director of the Japanese diplomacy department under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is eager to convince the public and the opposition parties that it is still capable of dealing with foreign issues amid its embarrassing poll data and upcoming general election.
"Tokyo looks to show that it is capable of making some changes to the deadlocked Japan-China ties," Lu said.
Beijing strongly protested Tokyo's provocations and resorted to a series of countermeasures in the past month. Tokyo has seen Chinese patrol ships constantly sailing in the waters off the islands in the past month to assert sovereignty.
The two neighbors on Sept 25 also initiated their formal reconciliation over the Diaoyu Islands dispute and Beijing called on Tokyo to admit the existence of the dispute and "correct the mistake".
Qu Xing, president of the China Institute of International Studies, said the two countries have asserted an overlapping presence in the waters off the islands, and China should not hold any illusion over Japan giving up its existing stance.
Tokyo's language for "easing tension" seems more like a posture to the international community, and was made for bluffing in both diplomatic and domestic occasions, Qu said.
On the agenda
Burns will leave Washington on Saturday for an eight-day trip to Japan, South Korea, China, Myanmar and India that analysts said further underscores Washington's strategic pivot to Asia.
When in Tokyo on Sunday and Monday, he will meet with Japanese Foreign Minister Gemba and Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto to discuss US-Japan coordination on regional and global issues.
Beijing said the deputy secretary will visit China from Tuesday to Wednesday, and US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that "the territorial issues will come up" when Burns talks to Beijing and Tokyo.
Yuan Peng, an expert on American studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said the visit is not just a response to Tokyo's existing desire to bolster the US-Japan alliance at such a sensitive time.
"Washington now aims to mediate between China and Japan, know more about the cards in both sides' hands, and make sure the situation does not go out of control," he said.
Washington said earlier that it does not take a position on the dispute and it rejected a mediating role between the two countries.
Yet Washington also reaffirmed that the islands fall within the scope of the 1960 US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, a pact that justifies Washington's needed military support for Japan.
Mike Hammer, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs, said on Thursday that Washington "has no change" in its policy over the territorial dispute.
However, Ukeru Magosaki, former chief of the intelligence and analysis bureau of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, warned in an article earlier this week that "there may be a trick" in US defense officials' reference to the US-Japan treaty.
The application of the treaty to the islands dispute, if needed, requires the approval of the US Congress.
"How can the US Congress approve to guard the trivial, uninhabited islands with the sacrifice of the blood of American soldiers?" the veteran Japanese diplomat said in the article.
Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state and national security adviser, also told a think tank seminar that the Diaoyu Islands dispute should remain a bilateral issue between China and Japan, and the US should not take a position on the sovereignty issue.