By Terril Yue Jones
BEIJING (Reuters) - A Japanese envoy carrying a letter from new prime minister Shinzo Abe told his Chinese hosts on Wednesday that Japan wants to improve bilateral ties, strained by a dispute over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
A spokesman for Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of New Komeito, the junior partner in Japan's ruling coalition, would not disclose the letter's contents nor say explicitly who it was for.
But he told Tang Jiaxuan, a former Chinese foreign minister and head of the China-Japan Friendship Association, Yamaguchi had high hopes for the visit.
"He said that Prime Minister Abe hopes strongly to improve Japan-China relations, and hopes for peace between the countries and in the region. Japan and China have a strategic relationship and he is looking at the big picture," New Komeito lawmaker, Makoto Nishida, told reporters in Beijing after the meeting.
Tensions over the islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, have flared in recent months, one of several maritime territorial disputes involving China that have worsened as Washington seeks to shift its security focus to Asia.
"If we move in the same direction together, the challenges will become opportunities. We are looking for a win-win relationship. This is important to China," Nishida paraphrased Tang as saying.
The islands issue was not discussed specifically, he said.
While Yamaguchi does not have a formal position in the government, he is leader of relatively dovish New Komeito, which joined the Liberal Democratic Party in its return to power last month. LDP leader Shinzo Abe became prime minister.
Violent anti-Japanese protests broke out across China last September after the Japanese government purchased three of the islands from their private Japanese owners.
Some Japanese businesses were looted, Japanese citizens were attacked and Japanese auto and other manufacturers reported considerably lower sales in China in the following months.
In recent weeks Japanese military planes have scrambled numerous times against Chinese planes approaching airspace over the islands. Chinese planes have also been launched to shadow Japanese planes elsewhere over the East China Sea.
China insists the islands are its territory and that it will brook no dispute over this.
"The Diaoyu Islands issue concerns China's territorial sovereignty and the feelings of the Chinese people," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular briefing earlier in the day.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Louise Ireland)