BEIJING -- China is sending subtle signals that it wants to mend strained ties with Japan, as demonstrated recently by two Communist Party leaders close to President Xi Jinping indicating a willingness to expand exchanges between the two countries.
No dramatic upturn in the relationship is in the cards, though, because of several difficult issues that constantly generate diplomatic tension between Tokyo and Beijing. But some rays of hope seem to be penetrating the dark clouds hanging over the two countries, just as the 45th anniversary of the establishment of their formal diplomatic relations is approaching.
On Dec. 6, Chen Min'er, party chief of the southwestern province of Guizhou, was at the center of attention in an event in Beijing that attracted nearly 200 diplomats and other officials from many countries.
Chen, one of Xi's closest aides, is seen as a major contender for future leadership positions in the party. While he was serving as propaganda chief in Zhejiang Province in the 2000s when Xi was the province's leader, Chen was in charge of Xi's regular column in a local newspaper.
Most observers believe that Chen, 56, will eventually join the top echelon of party leaders.
On that December day, Chen traveled to the capital to attend the event, which was held in a large hall on the 18th floor of the foreign ministry building to promote Guizhou's industry and culture in overseas markets.
After the Japanese ambassador to China, Yutaka Yokoi, left the event, Tomoo Kitamura, chief of the Beijing office of the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations, had a brief conversation with Chen.
Kitamura, who is on a temporary transfer from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, told Chen that local Japanese governments are interested in his province. Chen responded by saying that exchanges between local governments of the two countries are very important. "We welcome Japanese people visiting Guizhou Province," he said.
If Chen's words are no more than a diplomatic nicety, at least his behavior indicates a positive stance toward expansion of ties. More importantly, a senior Chinese government official had introduced Kitamura to Chen.
"This couldn't have happened several years ago, when having contact with Japan was nothing but a political risk for Chinese officials," said an expert working to develop bilateral relations.
On the same day, Li Xiaolin, president of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, held talks in Beijing with Fumihiro Koba, president of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in China.
Li, who is said to be one of Xi's childhood friends, and Koba, a senior executive at trading giant Sumitomo Corp., were attending the signing ceremony of an agreement for a program that invites Chinese university students to visit Japan for study tours of Japanese companies.
The agreement is for the third round of the program, which was launched in 2007, but it was the first time the chief of the Chinese friendship association attended the signing ceremony.
Li said the latest round will further promote "mutual understanding and cooperation" between young people and help improve friendship ties. Her remarks greatly encouraged Japanese officials at the ceremony as they signaled a change for the better in Beijing's attitude toward Tokyo.
At a forum one week later, Chinese students who had taken part in the program spoke mostly in positive terms about their experiences in Japan. Senior officials of the China-Japan Friendship Association, the Chinese organizer of the program, also made remarks that echoed Li's comment.
Speaking to the students, Wang Zhanqi, vice secretary-general of the China-Japan Friendship Association, called them "messengers" of friendship between the two countries and called on them to serve as the "pillar" for the development of bilateral relations.
Zhu Dan, another vice secretary-general of the association, said, "We are 100% confident" of friendly relations between China and Japan. The countries need each other, he added.
Explaining the implications of these conciliatory remarks, a Chinese diplomat said Beijing apparently wants to keep the bilateral relationship stable for the time being.
One reason is because China's leaders are prioritizing political stability ahead of a key Communist Party congress to be held in the autumn of 2017, the first such meeting since 2012. The last thing top party leaders want is a fresh wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations that could undermine their leadership before the important event.
When a large fleet of Chinese fishing boats and government vessels sailed to areas around the disputed Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, which are claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands, in August, state-run China Central Television aired few reports on the incident. It is believed the government was concerned about spurring nationalist sentiment that could spiral out of control.
In September, Xi held his first meeting in 17 months with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during this year's Group of 20 summit, held in Hangzhou.
Reporting on the meeting in its most important news program that airs at 7 p.m., CCTV quoted Xi as saying the opportunities offered by the 45th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral ties in 2017 and the 40th anniversary of the signing of the bilateral peace and friendship treaty in 2018 should be harnessed to ensure "advancement" of the China-Japan relationship.
The two leaders also held a brief conversation at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit held in Lima, Peru, in November.
But Beijing is sending mixed signals as the Chinese military is becoming increasingly assertive in its operations around Japan.
With China expanding military maneuvers in the sensitive region, the risk of accidental clashes between the two countries' forces inevitably increases. For example, on Dec. 10 several Chinese military aircraft flew over waters between Okinawa's main island and Miyako Island, prompting Japan to scramble two Self-Defense Forces fighter jets.
China's Ministry of National Defense later claimed that the SDF jets launched jamming shells, endangering the safety of the Chinese aircraft. The Japanese government denied the allegation. While the truth remains unknown, the incident underscores the growing possibility of unintended clashes occurring between the two countries.
A Chinese official involved in developing the country's Japan policy said Beijing will decide on its long-term strategy over the next year or two.
Before the Abe-Xi meeting in September, experts and policymakers discussed the possible courses Japan might take with regard to its national security.
They considered three main scenarios: Japan will focus on its security alliance with the U.S. and follow Washington's lead; Japan will embrace militarism; or Japan will try to improve relations with China by controlling tension through bilateral ties.
The outlook for the historically prickly relationship is far from clear. But it looks unlikely to return to the diplomatic storm that followed Japan's nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in 2012, which triggered waves of sometimes violent anti-Japanese protests in China.