• Kyodo

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A delegation of around 200 executives from major Japanese firms arrived Monday in Beijing with the hope of opening a path for improved bilateral relations.

The visit comes less than two months before China hosts a regional summit during which the top political leaders of the two countries might have a chance to hold official talks for the first time.

The visit by the Japan-China Economic Association, led by Fujio Cho, Toyota Motor Corp. honorary chairman, is the largest business mission to go to Beijing since bilateral ties were severely strained two years ago by renewed tensions over a group of small islands that Japan, China and Taiwan claim sovereignty over.

The delegation, which includes Sadayuki Sakakibara, head of Japan’s largest business lobby, Keidanren, and Takashi Imai, honorary chairman of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp., is hoping to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang during its stay in Beijing ending Thursday.

Despite sour ties, China has started sending clearer signals in recent months that it is willing to promote economic cooperation with Japan.

China’s Commerce Ministry said last week that direct investment from Japan to the world’s second-largest economy in the first eight months of 2014 dropped 43.3 percent from the same period last year to $3.16 billion.

The Japanese association is set to discuss economic issues with Gao Hucheng, who leads the ministry, and other senior Chinese officials on Tuesday.

Seeking to break the ice with China, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in December 2012, is trying to get his first formal meeting with Xi on the sidelines of this year’s summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum November in Beijing.

China claims the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands and wants Tokyo to drop its stance that no territorial dispute exists before allowing a meeting between Xi and Abe.

China has also called on Abe not to revisit a controversial war shrine in Tokyo. His visit in December to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors past leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals among the war dead, angered China and further aggravated relations between Asia’s two biggest economies.

“We’d like to contribute to creating an environment to enable a summit” between Abe and Xi, Sakakibara, chairman of Toray Industries Inc., said earlier this month.

It is Sakakibara’s first visit to China since he became head of Keidanren, also called the Japan Business Federation, in June. The influential business lobby started sending missions to China in 1975, three years after diplomatic relations were normalized.

The latest visit marks its 40th and the size of the delegation is the biggest ever, according to the association.

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