Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering on Tuesday to a Tokyo shrine for war dead, irking Asian neighbors just before he hopes to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a leaders' summit in Jakarta.
Abe made the offering, a potted tree, a day before a group of lawmakers pay their respects at the Yasukuni shrine. The timing was seen as an attempt to avoid diplomatic embarrassment during Wednesday's summit.
Abe told reporters prior to leaving for the Asian-African conference that he hoped he and Xi could meet, adding: "I would like to improve ties with China further based on the principle of a mutually beneficial, strategic relationship."
A Japanese government source said Abe would express remorse over World War Two war in remarks on Wednesday but media have said he would not emulate his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who repeated a landmark apology at the same conference in 2005.
Sino-Japanese ties have chilled in recent years due to feuds over Japan's wartime history, bitter memories of which persist in China, as well as territorial rows and mutual mistrust over Abe's bolder security policies and China's military assertiveness.
The Yomiuri Shimbun daily said a final decision by China on a meeting between the leaders of the world's second- and third- biggest economies depended on Abe's remarks.
China said Xi's schedule at the summit had yet to be decided and called on Tokyo to acknowledge the past. "The Japanese leader must earnestly abide by the relevant promises of past cabinets to face up to and reflect on the history of aggression," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
South Korea, which also sees the shrine as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, expressed irritation at Abe's offering.
"Japanese leaders must clearly recognize that for them to express respect and gratitude at such a shrine is to deny the premise on which Japan returned to the international community after the war," Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kwang-il told a briefing.
Abe's offering at Yasukuni shrine, where leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied Tribunal are honored with war dead, treads a fine line between demands of conservative allies to visit the shrine in person, and a desire to keep a thaw in ties with Beijing and Seoul on track. On Wednesday, scores of ruling party lawmakers are expected to visit the shrine.
"Certainly ... China will perceive a mixed message no matter what he says about it being a private gesture," Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus, said of the offering.
"From China's perspective it will be problematic ... but Abe can say enough (in Jakarta) to get a meeting with Xi Jinping."
Abe will make a high-profile speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress next week, the first by a Japanese leader.
Both the Jakarta remarks and the U.S. speech will provide hints about a statement Abe plans to make in August to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two. Abe reiterated on Monday that he would uphold a landmark 1995 apology by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama but said he saw no reason to repeat the same phrases, which include a "heartfelt apology".