China and Japan are both keen to prevent the territorial dispute in the East China Sea from becoming a full-blown crisis, after manoeuvring in recent months increased the risk of a military clash.
Analysts said the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan, would not be resolved during Tuesday's visit to China by a member of Japan's ruling coalition, New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi. But they were hopeful it could lead to an easing of tensions.
The two sides have exchanged heated rhetoric since September, when Tokyo announced plans to buy three of the five islets.
The tensions continued as diplomats engaged in bilateral talks, with the risk of a military clash escalating recently after both sides dispatched fighter jets to the region. But analysts said both countries were well aware that they could not afford to see the tensions turn into a full-blown crisis, and wanted to maintain the status quo.
Yamaguchi said on Thursday he would like to meet president-in-waiting Xi Jinping, and hoped his four-day trip could pave the way for future talks between Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama paid tribute to victims of the Nanking Massacre on a four-day visit to the mainland which ended yesterday.
In his talks with Hatoyama, Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference chairman Jia Qinglin said the countries' differences should be handled through dialogue.
Zhou Yongsheng , an expert in Japanese affairs at China Foreign Affairs University, said Xi could meet Yamaguchi in his capacity as Communist Party head, sending a signal that both sides wanted stable bilateral ties.
Professor Lian Degui , from the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said rising nationalistic sentiment in both countries had created obstacles to concessions.
"Inside China, there is a widespread opinion that our army should hit back if Japan fires warning shots at our planes," he said. "This nationalistic sentiment is getting into a dangerous track. China knows the disputes will not be solved, but they can keep the tensions frozen."
Yamaguchi announced his China trip as Abe started his first overseas visit to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.
In his previous stint as prime minister in 2006, Abe made China his first stop. His itinerary this time triggered fears that Japan is attempting to encircle China.
In a written interview with Thai daily Matichon on Thursday, Abe said China's claim to the disputed islands was "illegitimate", but he also vowed to improve communication between Tokyo and Beijing.
Professor Da Zhigang , of the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences, said Tokyo believed that isolating China was risky and Abe might appear to adopt a more moderate approach towards Beijing in the coming months. "The tough approach will not do Abe any good in the long run," Da said.
The two countries are also taking stock of the economic cost of escalating tension.
Bilateral trade slumped 3.9 per cent year on year to US$329.45 billion last year, China's National Bureau of Statistics said yesterday.
"Chinese investment and the economy will be affected, which will impact its internal stability," said Norihiro Sasaki, a China watcher at the Institute of Developing Economies in Japan.
"If Xi would meet Yamaguchi, then Abe would take measures to relieve tensions."