By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki will visit China on Monday and Tuesday for talks with senior officials, the latest in a series of efforts by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to improve relations soured by a bitter territorial row.
The hawkish Abe, who cemented his grip on power in an upper house election last week, has since then been signaling a desire for dialogue - even though Japan has raised its assessment of the risk of China's military buildup and maritime assertiveness.
On Friday, Abe called for an unconditional meeting between Japanese and Chinese leaders - a proposal he repeated on Monday, according to Kyodo news agency. It said Abe had instructed diplomats to work towards that goal.
On Sunday, Isao Iijima, an adviser to the premier, told reporters that Abe could soon hold a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said no schedule had been set.
"As Prime Minister Abe has repeatedly said, he wants a mutually beneficial, strategic relationship and the door is always open for dialogue.
"However, there is no immediate schedule for a leadership summit," Suga told a news conference on Monday.
Often fragile Sino-Japanese ties have been seriously strained since September, when a territorial row over tiny islands in the East China Sea flared following Japan's nationalization of the uninhabited isles.
Concern that Abe, who came to power in December, wants to recast Japan's wartime history with a less apologetic tone has added to the tension.
"Vice Minister Saiki will visit China on July 29-30 and exchange views with Chinese officials," a Japanese foreign ministry spokesman said. He did not give further details.
China's Foreign Ministry responded to Abe's overture on Friday by saying its door was always open for talks but that the problem lay in Japan's attitude.
Japan should "stop using empty slogans about so-called dialogue to gloss over disagreements", the ministry said in a statement faxed to Reuters.
Abe, 58, may be hoping to repeat one of the few successes of his troubled 2006-2007 term in office, when he thawed ties with China that had frayed during the five-year stint of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. One opportunity for the Japanese leader to meet his Chinese counterpart could be a Sept 5-6 Group of 20 leaders' summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
"It's not a breakthrough yet, but we are hopefully making some progress," said Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat close to Abe who is now research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo. "It is not unilateral solicitation (by Japan). It is a mutual sort of approach without losing face. That's why it takes time."
Experts say the key sticking point to a Sino-Japanese summit is whether the two sides can find a way to set aside the row to calm the situation and focus on other aspects of relations between the world's second- and third-biggest economies.
China wants Japan to first acknowledge that a formal dispute exists, a step that Tokyo has rejected for fear it would undermine its claim to sovereignty of the isles, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, the experts said.
Tensions rose last year after Japan nationalized the islands and Chinese and Japanese ships and aircraft have been playing a cat-and-mouse game nearby, raising worries about an accidental clash that could escalate. On Monday, Japan's coast guard said four Chinese vessels were sighted in nearby waters, although not in an area Japan considers its territory.
The United States has affirmed that the islands are included in its commitment under a U.S.-Japan security treaty, but has repeatedly made clear it would like to see tensions abate.
Whether China's Xi, who faces huge challenges in dealing with corruption and slower-than-expected growth, has the bandwidth to improve ties with Tokyo is as yet unclear, especially given the negative view of Japan among many Chinese.
Beijing may also be waiting to see how Abe handles the touchy topic of wartime history, given the still bitter memories in China of Japan's past aggression.
Japan's Mainichi newspaper said last week Abe was unlikely to visit Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, the emotive anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War Two. The shrine is seen by critics as a symbol of Tokyo's past militarism because leaders convicted by an Allied tribunal as war criminals are honored there along with war dead.
(Reporting by Linda Sieg, Antoni Slodkowski, and Stanley White; writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)