A dramatic confrontation between Chinese activists and Japanese vessels took place on Thursday as senior officials of both sides tried to ease territorial tensions over the Diaoyu Islands, which have been China's for centuries.
Observers said the incident prompted urgent calls on both sides to rein in the situation, reduce the increasing risks and make tangible progress in bilateral communications.
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called for steady policies toward China from the new Japanese cabinet when he met Natsuo Yamaguchi, the visiting party leader of Japan's pacifist New Komeito, a junior ruling partner in coalition with the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.
Yamaguchi came to China with a letter from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeking a possible breakthrough in the political impasse. Tokyo's tangible moves are expected to improve the strained ties, and maintaining the broad perspective of bilateral relations "requires a proper resolution of sensitive bilateral issues, including the Diaoyu Islands dispute", the minister said.
Yamaguchi stressed the huge shared interests of the two largest Asian economies and said "existing differences should be shelved through dialogue".
After keeping a low profile for two days following his arrival in Beijing on Tuesday, Yamaguchi embarked on a series of meetings with key officials on Thursday, including Wang Jiarui, head of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
On Thursday a fishing vessel containing a group of activists from Taiwan was obstructed by Japanese coast guard ships in the waters surrounding the Diaoyu Islands and failed to make a landing.
Escorted by four coast guard ships from Taiwan, the "Happy Family" fishing vessel departed from northern Taiwan in the early morning before it confronted eight Japanese coast guard ships in the waters near the Diaoyu Islands at about 9:40 am.
The fishing vessel has seven people onboard, including several well-known non-governmental activists, one captain and an Indonesian worker. Japanese ships obstructed the vessel by making waves and emitting black smoke, and later spraying water toward it. Taiwan's coast guard ships responded with water spray and LED signals and used an audio amplifier warning the Japanese from obstructing the navigation of the vessel.
As the waters witness more standoffs between vessels and aircraft from both sides, the risk of a potential conflict is rising. Yet "both sides know really well that major combat cannot bring a resolution to the issue", said Zhang Tuosheng, a researcher at the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies.
Feng Wei, an expert on Japanese studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said Yamaguchi's trip, seen in the light of Abe's overall plan to break the ice, will not end in vain. Feng was optimistic about the possibility of good results.
Bilateral trade and public diplomacy were badly affected after the Japanese government in September illegally "purchased" part of the Diaoyu Islands. The hawkish Abe has heard increasingly tough voices blast his hard-line policies toward China, as leading Japanese entrepreneurs have become greatly concerned about Japan's slumping share of the Chinese economy and trade, said Zhang Lili, a professor of Japanese studies at China Foreign Affairs University.
Seven leading Japanese travel agencies suffered an average monthly drop of more than 70 percent in the number of Japanese visitors to China in the last three months of 2012, Japan's NHK Television reported on Thursday.
"After a period of tough policies that have not made a major difference, Abe felt obliged to make some changes. He sent a written letter to Beijing through his envoy and also made it known that he would be available for a bilateral summit," Zhang said.