Japan's new ambassador arrived in Beijing on Tuesday as the country's incoming Prime Minister Shinzo Abe picked a new foreign minister amid looming tension over the Diaoyu Islands.
Observers said that some members of the new Liberal Democratic Party cabinet, made up of a number of political veterans experienced in diplomacy with China, may be eager to break the ice but they will find it difficult to soften Japan's hard-line stance.
Japanese Ambassador Masato Kitera told reporters in Beijing that his "top task" is to deepen relations.
The veteran diplomat said his new post is not an easy job, and he vowed to tell Beijing of the crucial importance of economic ties for the people of both countries.
Beijing welcomed any initiative from the ambassador that would contribute to improving ties, the Foreign Ministry said.
Relations between the two countries nosedived in September after the Japanese government illegally "purchased" part of the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
Liang Yunxiang, a professor of Japanese studies at Peking University, said "structural friction", including territorial and historical issues, still resonates in the relationship.
Tokyo continues to take a hard line on the islands, and Kitera did not come up with new ideas in his first speech on Tuesday, Liang said.
"Although Tokyo has sent a series of signals indicating its desire to ease tension, it refuses to make any substantial concessions," Liang said.
Kitera arrived and spoke in Beijing a day before Abe, the LDP chief who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, is sworn in as prime minister on Wednesday.
Abe will appoint lower house lawmaker Fumio Kishida as foreign minister, Kyodo news agency said on Tuesday.
Kishida, 55, served as a state minister in charge of Okinawan issues in Abe's first cabinet, and Reuters said Tokyo seeks to balance a bolder diplomatic stance with the need to repair frayed ties with China and South Korea.
Abe has softened his tone toward China recently, compared with his tough election campaign rhetoric, said Lu Yaodong, director of the department of Japanese diplomacy of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"The most important thing is what he says and does in the future," Lu said.
Liang said Kishida's priority is to find a solution to the tension but he predicted that Tokyo will not make any sharp diplomatic U-turns.
Chinese marine surveillance ships continued patrolling waters off the Diaoyu Islands on Tuesday, the Japanese coast guard said.
Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto said on Tuesday that Tokyo will not hesitate to dispatch ships and aircraft to monitor the waters.
Media reports said Japan sent F-15 fighter jets to the area on Saturday to intercept a Chinese marine surveillance plane bound for the Diaoyu Islands.
Beijing has lodged a solemn representation on the issue, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Tuesday.
New Japanese ambassador plans tour around China
Japan's new ambassador to China, Masato Kitera, arrived in Beijing Tuesday, vowing to mend the strained China-Japan relations following Tokyo's nationalization of the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
Kitera, a career diplomat, told a press conference shortly after his arrival in Beijing that his first mission is to improve Japan-China relations.
The ambassador's posting came after Japan's leader-in-waiting Shinzo Abe pledged to seek a thaw in relations between Beijing and Tokyo.
Kitera said he plans to pay visits around the country, and meet Chinese people from all walks of life to convey messages about Sino-Japanese friendship. "Before leaving for Beijing, many people encouraged me, and I hope to translate that into motivation and achieve good results in diplomacy," he said.
In an interview with NHK on Monday, Kitera said he will explain to China's senior officials that "we need to make economic ties warmer if our political relationship is cooling, as Japanese corporate activities in China contribute to the Chinese economy."
At a regular press briefing on Tuesday, China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China had taken note of some of Kitera's remarks on improving Sino-Japanese relations.
"We hope that the new Japanese ambassador can forge close contacts with all sectors in China, boost his understanding toward the country, and make positive efforts for the improvement and development of bilateral ties," said Hua.
Wang Pin, a researcher with the Institute of Japanese Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times Tuesday that Kitera knows China and Chinese culture well, and is experienced in dealing with economic and trade issues, which could help revitalize bilateral economic relations.
But Wang noted that people shouldn't have too high expectations of the role played by the ambassador, adding that after all, the foreign policy was ultimately drawn up by the new Japanese administration.
Abe, who is expected to take office Wednesday, said Saturday that his administration wants to "make efforts to return to the starting point of developing a mutually reciprocal relationship" with China.
It is also reported that Abe plans to send an envoy to China as early as next month in a bid to repair ties between Asia's two largest economies.