TOKYO - A senior Chinese government official has secretly visited Japan for talks with Japanese officials aimed at improving bilateral relations damaged by an ongoing territorial row, a report said Tuesday.

The talks involving a high-ranking official from the Chinese foreign ministry’s Asian division were thought to have been held in early October, Japanese news agency Jiji Press reported from Beijing quoting Chinese government sources.

A high-ranking official from the Japanese foreign ministry attended the meeting, the report said. A Japanese foreign ministry official declined comment on the content of the report, saying: “Japan and China have been making various exchanges at various levels.”

The Tokyo-Beijing ties took a nosedive in September last year over the ownership of the Japan-controlled Senkaku islands, which China also claims and calls the Diaoyus.  The row over the islands in the East China Sea has led to warnings of a possible armed confrontation.

 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe managed a brief encounter and shook the hand of Chinese President Xi Jinping last week on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit in Indonesia.

But China rejected a formal sit-down meeting between them due to the island dispute. Abe has not held formal talks with Chinese and South Korean leaders since taking office last December. Tokyo also has a dispute with Seoul over a group of South Korea-controlled isles.

The legacy of Japan’s 20th century wartime aggression has also been souring Tokyo’s ties with the neighbours.

Meanwhile, Japan’s prime minister hinted Tuesday he was moving towards amending the country’s pacifist constitution at the opening of a new parliamentary session expected to focus largely on the economy.

Shinzo Abe spent much of his speech putting a little flesh on the bones of policies that have powered Japan’s long-slumbering economy to enviable growth rates.

But in a short section towards the end, the hawkish Abe touched on his long-cherished desire to beef up the nation’s military presence to respond to the changing world order.

“In the increasingly intertwined world, we can’t ensure the peace of our nation without proactively taking a role in the peace and security of the world,” Abe said.

“I will proceed with the rebuilding of diplomacy and security policy, looking straight at the reality of the security environment, which is getting more intense,” he said.

Japan is currently locked in a standoff with China over the sovereignty of a chain of islands, and Tokyo has watched with alarm as Beijing’s military might has grown over recent years.

Abe also promised to establish a Japanese version of the US National Security Council “to strengthen the leadership role of the prime minister’s office in diplomacy and security policy”.

The premier has long been agitated for the amendment of a key article in Japan’s constitution that renounces war as a sovereign right and limits its military to self-defence.

But strong public support for pacifism has acted as a brake on his nationalist fervour.

Abe has previously talked of lowering the bar for constitutional change from the present two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament followed by a simple majority in a special referendum.

Detractors fear if this is achieved, it will allow him a freer hand to amend provisions restricting the armed forces.

“Why don’t we take steps forward on the issue of constitutional amendment, by preparing procedures for a national referendum and further discussions nationwide?” Abe asked rhetorically.

The speech provided no detail on the subject, with the bulk of it addressing policies aimed at continued economic growth.

“Without actions, there will be no growth. This parliament is about taking action over growth strategy,” Abe said.

“We will promote business restructuring to spawn new businesses and back new start-up businesses,” he said, adding he will “push through electricity system reforms” to create a freer energy market.

The hard-charging Abe has presided over a re-awakening of the world’s third largest economy since he came to power last December, with his “Abemomics” policies helping it to grow an annualised 3.8 percent.

But the easy money and fiscal largesse — the first two of his three “arrows” of reform — on which the figures are based, have been dismissed as froth.

Tuesday’s speech will be seen as another attempt to define the third “arrow” after several false starts.

Abe said his government will submit parliamentary bills aimed at making changes to rigid business rules, something experts agree is necessary if Japanese firms are to be freed from the red tape that binds them.

It was not immediately clear how far these changes would go, but he has talked in the past of special deregulation zones that would impose fewer strictures on firms.

Abe pledged there would be some deregulation of the electricity industry, flagged as key to getting things moving again, although he gave little detail on reforms. Vast regional monopolies at present control both production and distribution of power.

The tsunami-sparked nuclear disaster at Fukushima in March 2011 pointed up the weakness of this system, leading to consumers paying considerably more for their electricity as the plant’s operator struggles to deal with the huge clean-up.