A special adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe secretly visited Beijing earlier this week in an apparent effort to improve strained relations with China, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga admitted Thursday at a news conference.

Earlier in the day, TV Asahi reported that Shotaro Yachi, former vice foreign minister and a long-time ally of Abe, made an unofficial visit to Beijing to see high-ranking Chinese officials there.

Suga confirmed the report at the press conference but declined further comment.

Asked if Yachi visited Beijing under his or Abe’s approval, Suga said: “Basically you can take it that way.”

Sino-Japanese relations have been particularly strained since last fall due to the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, known as Diaoyu in China. Since then, top government figures of the two countries have not made direct contact, at least officially.

While in London on a diplomatic tour Wednesday, Abe said he is ready to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying, “the door for dialogue is always kept open” for China.

The report of Yachi’s visit, together with Abe’s comment on a possible meeting with Xi, raised speculation that the two countries may be in unofficial talks to arrange a summit.

On Thursday, Suga, however, flatly denied this.

“There is no fact that such (a meeting) is being considered,” he said.

At the same time, Suga added : “The government is always considering various possible options” to improve relations with China.”

Yachi was a vice foreign minister during Abe’s first prime ministership, between 2006 and 2007, serving as a key adviser.

In 2006, Abe visited Beijing and greatly improved bilateral relations, which had been strained while his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, was in office.

Abe has advocated a “mutually beneficial strategic partnership” with China. Yachi is believed to be the primary architect of this key concept of Abe’s diplomacy.

When Abe made a comeback as prime minister last December, he immediately appointed Yachi, who was a university professor at the time, as a special adviser to the Cabinet.

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