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By Terril Yue Jones and Linda Sieg
BEIJING/TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's top career diplomat met China's foreign minister on Tuesday in the latest bid to ease strains between Asia's two biggest economies over a bitter territorial row, while a Chinese official newspaper said Beijing had ruled out a leaders' summit.
Hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who cemented his grip on power in an upper house election last week, has been signaling a desire for dialogue with China since the victory - although he has also rejected any conditions set by Beijing.
Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki's visit was the latest effort by Tokyo to improve ties soured by the row over tiny, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries.
Saiki met China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, and a deputy in Beijing, China's foreign ministry said in a statement.
"Both sides had a candid exchange of view on Sino-Japanese relations, China clearly expressed its position on problems facing relations between the two countries," China's foreign ministry said in a statement on its website.
"The two sides will continue to communicate through various channels and various levels," the foreign ministry added.
Saiki told reporters before leaving Beijing that the exchange of views had been "serious and direct" but declined to comment on a possible summit, saying he had to report to Abe first.
Earlier in the day, the English-language China Daily said Beijing had ruled out a summit and quoted an unidentified Chinese official as urging Japan to take concrete steps to improve strained ties rather than "empty slogans".
The Chinese official was also quoted as saying in the newspaper that weekend statements by Abe's adviser, Isao Iijima, that a leaders' summit could happen in the "not-too-distant future" were "fabricated".
In Tokyo, a Japanese foreign ministry source said he had not seen the China Daily report and could not comment on it directly, but a summit could still be held at the right time.
"It is true no concrete date is set for a leaders' summit or foreign ministers' summit," the Japanese source said. "But this does not mean there will never be one in the future."
Often fragile Sino-Japanese ties have been further strained since September, when the territorial row over the East China Sea islands flared after Abe's predecessor nationalized the isles, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.
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.
China considers Japan has never properly atoned for its brutal invasion and occupation of parts of China during and before World War Two and rarely misses an opportunity to remind Tokyo of this.
Experts say the main sticking point to a Sino-Japanese summit is whether the two sides can find a way to set aside the row and focus on other aspects of relations between the world's second- and third-biggest economies.
China wants Japan first to acknowledge that a formal dispute exists, a step that Tokyo has rejected for fear it would undermine its claim to sovereignty, the experts said.
"The key is Japan has not shown sincerity on its side. Since Abe took office, he has said our door is open and so on. But in fact he has not done anything to ease Sino-Japanese relations, there has been no move. And he said too that there's no dispute over Sino-Japanese territory. The attitude is very hard line," said Shanghai Institute of International Studies' Li Xiushi.
Both sides, as well as Tokyo's ally the United States, would like to calm the tension to avoid an unintended clash near the islands, where Japanese and Chinese planes and patrol ships have been playing cat-and-mouse, analysts in Tokyo said.
Abe may also hope to repeat one of the few successes of his troubled 2006-2007 term in office, when he repaired ties with China that had frayed under his predecessor, or win points for trying.
Analysts said, however, that Abe may have been overconfident about prospects for talks following his ruling bloc's big win in the July 21 upper house election. The victory ended a parliamentary deadlock and set the stage for Japan's first long-term government since Koizumi's 2001-2006 term.
China, for its part, may not want to risk being blamed for scuttling chances of better ties but would like to keep a free hand at least until it sees whether Abe or Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso visit Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine on the emotive August 15 anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War Two.
A visit to Yasukuni would outrage public opinion in China, where many view the shrine as a symbol of Japan's past militarism because it honors Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal along with war dead.
"If Japan satisfies China, in retrospect this could be the beginning of a rebuilding of ties," said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano in Tokyo.
Japanese media have said Abe was unlikely to pay his respects at the shrine on August 15, and quoted Aso as saying there was no need to go on the anniversary of Japan's defeat.
(Additional reporting by Pete Sweeney in SHANGHAI, Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing and Antoni Slodkowski in Tokyo)