New Japanese Prime Minister Must Quell China’s Fears About His Nationalism

Japanese PM Yoshihiko Noda

Japanese PM Yoshihiko Noda

“Japan-U.S. and Japan-China relations need to be improved,” Japan’s newly elected prime minister, recently told his foreign minister. “I’d like you to place priority on them.”

Japan has put its sixth premier in five years in place to tackle the extensive problems facing Japan in the wake of consecutive tragedies including the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. The appearance of the new Japanese leader already attracted the attention of neighboring countries. China has viewed the appointment of Japan’s new premier with more anxiety than enthusiasm, given Yoshihiko Noda’s conservative views and comments supporting a controversial Tokyo shrine honoring World War II dead including Class A war criminals.

Despite such controversial remarks, the new prime minister is not likely to take any risky positions. As Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, remarks, “Noda is likely to play down his past comments and he has no interest in complicating his situation by creating an acrimonious atmosphere when he needs to cooperate with Asian nations to get out of Japan‘s economic quagmire.” The Japanese public also will not want their leader to waste his time squabbling over historical issues with neighboring countries. The core interest of Japan at the moment is economic recovery. And China is a big part of this.

China has become a key trading partner to sustaining Japan’s economic growth. China has become Japan’s biggest trading partner, doing $176 billion worth of trade for the first half of 2011. The relationship is complementary. As the world’s largest developing country, China needs Japan’s technology and high-end products. As a trade and technology-oriented country, Japan needs China’s market which is close to Japan and has great potential. Japan also needs low-priced daily necessities made in China.

However, the two countries face a serious hurdle in the path toward better bilateral relations.

The maritime dispute between China and Japan over the Tokyo-administered island chain in the East China Sea known in Japan as the Senkakus and in China as the Diaoyu islands has been a longstanding point of conflict. The new leadership in Japan not only has stressed its claim over the islands but also revealed its willingness to take corresponding measures to China’s military expansion, especially its naval power. In a news conference on September 2, Japan’s foreign minister said that “China is building up its naval power without transparency. We’ll make firm demands on China over the matter.” In addition, the annual white paper report released by Japan’s ministry of defense outlines a plan to beef up the country’s naval power, with China and its maritime assertiveness cited as a major reason for the modernization. According to People’s Daily Online, the Japanese government uses the “China threat theory” to bridge the divide between Japan and the United States and to force local municipalities to continue to tolerate the presence of U.S. military bases.

The new Sino-Japan relations depend on the newly elected Japanese prime minister’s performance. But the revolving door nature of Japan’s leadership over the last five years has given “the world the impression that Japan’s leadership is fickle.” In order to improve relations with China, Yoshihiko Noda will first have to stay in power long enough to make a difference.

Ikhwan Kim is a Foreign Policy in Focus intern.