The leaders of Japan and China are likely to meet for the first time next month on the sidelines of a regional summit in Beijing, shaking hands in a carefully negotiated display of good will that Japanese officials say they hope will lower tensions between the two estranged Asian powers.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations, said the hoped-for meeting between Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, had been months in the making and involved behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts by both nations.
While they have not received final word from the Chinese side, they said they were now optimistic that the two leaders would meet briefly — perhaps for about 15 minutes — during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, or APEC, a summit of regional leaders that Mr. Xi will host.
In another sign of rapprochment, Japan’s Kyodo News agency reported on Friday that Mr. Abe had shaken hands with China’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, at a dinner for Asian and European leaders in Milan.
The officials said that while the meeting between the two leaders would most likely be too short to delve into issues of substance, they hoped it would be rich in symbolism. They said they hoped a meeting would open the way for a broader thaw in relations between China and Japan, Asia’s two largest economies, which have been in a deep freeze since the Japanese government purchased disputed islands two years ago.
“A month ago, I would have told you a meeting was not likely,” one Japanese official said. “Now, I’d say both countries have come around to seeing it as in their interests.”
The two countries have been locked in an almost Cold War-style standoff since the purchase of the islands by Mr. Abe’s predecessor in mid-2012, a move that was intended to prevent them from falling under the control of Japanese ultranationalists. Outraged by what it saw as a unilateral move to strengthen Japanese control over islands that it also claims, China responded by cutting off many political, academic and cultural contacts.
It also began dispatching paramilitary ships almost daily to waters near the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
The ascent of Mr. Abe, a vocal conservative, in December 2012 further rankled China. Mr. Xi has refused to meet the Japanese prime minister, who is seen in China as a dangerous nationalist bent on denying World War II atrocities committed by invading Japanese troops. For his part, Mr. Abe has refused to back down in the islands dispute, expanding the flotilla of Japanese coast guard ships that now chase the Chinese vessels in games of cat and mouse in waters near the islands.
Both leaders, however, have come under increasing pressure to contain the damage to their nations’ huge economic relationship. Political analysts said both were also keen to avoid appearing to be the cause of a standoff that many had worried might turn an accident or miscalculation by the vessels into a violent escalation.
The Japanese officials said Mr. Abe was keen to show other countries in the region, and also Japan’s biggest ally, the United States, that he was trying to be reasonable in responding to China’s increasingly assertive territorial claims. Since taking office, Mr. Abe has repeatedly said he was willing to talk with China “without conditions.”
Japanese officials said that until recently, Chinese officials had told them that as a precondition for talks, Japan must officially recognize that the islands were in dispute, something it has so far refused to do for fear of opening the door to further claims by China. Japanese leaders had also been asked by China to refrain from visiting a controversial war shrine. But Japanese officials said that China has shown more flexibility on preconditions in negotiations for the possible meeting next month between Mr. Abe and Mr. Xi.
On Friday, however, China expressed displeasure after Mr. Abe sent an offering of a potted plant to the Yasukuni war shrine to mark an autumn festival. Japanese officials had said they felt the offering would not affect relations with China, as no high-ranking officials had actually visited the shrine in central Tokyo.
Political analysts said that while the disputes over wartime history and the islands would continue to divide China and Japan, both nations appeared to share a growing recognition that they had too much to lose if they did not find some way to get along. With neither country willing to yield over the islands, some analysts now speak of a new status quo, in which China and Japan essentially agree to disagree on the territory, while returning to business as usual in other areas, such as trade and investment.
In that case, they said, the standoff over the islands could become a permanent feature of the security landscape, with both countries continuing to send ships there, while also taking steps to prevent the dispute from escalating. Analysts pointed to the recent resumption of talks to set up a “hotline” between the navies of China and Japan to improve communication during a crisis, which had been suspended after Japan’s purchase of the islands.
“Japan and China are seeking a new equilibrium,” said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “The best we can do now is to keep playing this game, but at a lower level, and to find ways to be less confrontational.”
Japanese officials and analysts said the first such effort to lower the tension level came in July, when Yasuo Fukuda, a former Japanese prime minister from a more dovish wing of the governing Liberal Democratic Party than Mr. Abe, was allowed to meet Mr. Xi during a visit to Beijing. Mr. Fukuda handed the Chinese leader a personal letter from Mr. Abe, and first proposed the meeting between the two leaders during the APEC summit, Japanese officials said.
The move was reciprocated this month with a visit to Tokyo by Li Xiaolin, the daughter of a former Chinese president who is said to be a childhood friend of Mr. Xi’s. During her visit, Ms. Li, who is the head of the official Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, met with Mr. Abe, and sat with him to watch a performance by a visiting Chinese dance troupe.
“The Chinese side has also become more proactive than before in improving relations,” Mr. Abe said in Parliament on Oct. 8, when asked about the visit by Ms. Li. To improve relations, he said, “it is important to pursue cooperation and dialogue in wide-ranging areas.”
The most recent contact came last weekend, when Junichi Ihara, a top diplomat in charge of Asian affairs at the Japanese Foreign Ministry, paid a secret visit to Beijing, which was later reported in Japanese newspapers. While Japanese officials refused to comment specifically on Mr. Ihara’s visit, they did say that negotiations are currently underway to arrange what will most likely be a short, carefully choreographed meeting in which the two leaders sit down together to engage in smiling conversation before television cameras.