By MALCOLM FOSTER
Yoshihiko Noda faces such a staggering array of domestic problems that the last thing he needs is a sour relationship with China, Japan’s biggest trading partner.
Yet the incoming prime minister is being viewed warily in China, whose media are playing up his comments supporting Yasukuni Shrine and that Beijing’s military buildup is creating regional unease.
” ‘Hawk’ to become Japan’s new prime minister,” said the nationalistic Global Times.
Regarded at home as a smart but bland fiscal conservative from humble roots, Noda replaces the unpopular Naoto Kan. Fresh off a stint as finance minister, Noda will likely focus on reviving the stagnant economy and reducing the massive national debt as well as recovering from the quake-tsunami and nuclear disasters.
But in China, the media are portraying Noda as a rightwing nationalist and have predicted a rocky period for Japan-China relations. Even more liberal newspapers highlighted his comments, first made in 2005 and reiterated earlier this month, that convicted wartime leaders enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine should no longer be seen as criminals.
Visits to the contentious shrine by postwar politicians have often enraged Japan’s neighbors, who see the shrine as a glorification of militarism and a symbol of Tokyo’s failure to fully atone for its past imperialism. When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi used to visit the shrine it triggered rage and a five-year chill in relations with China and South Korea.
Japan, long used to being the region’s dominant power, has been unsettled by China’s fast-accelerating power over the past decade, even as the two countries — now the world’s second- and third-largest economies — built thriving commercial relations. In this rivalry, Beijing has often appeared to test Tokyo’s mettle, at times taking advantage of political transitions in Japan.
On Monday, after Noda was elected head of the Democratic Party of Japan, China’s official news agency warned him not to ignore Beijing’s “core interests.” In a harshly worded editorial, Xinhua demanded Noda not visit Yasukuni and said Tokyo must recognize China’s claim over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Ties between the countries deteriorated sharply last year when a Chinese fishing boat captain was arrested — and later released — by Japan after his boat collided with a patrol boat in disputed waters near the islands as the coast guard try to shoo him away.
The territorial dispute could flare again. Last week, two Chinese fisheries patrol boats sailed into contested waters near the islands, drawing a rebuke from Tokyo.
Noda made a veiled reference to China in comments Saturday during a joint news conference by the five candidates for the prime minister’s job: “Among our neighboring countries, there is a nation that is mixing up economic growth and nationalism.”
He added that Japan “has instilled a weak image when it comes to territorial issues. We do not need to make advances, but we should be prepared in case something happens.”
Noda, 54, and the rest of Kan’s Cabinet chose not to visit Yasukuni this year, and analysts believe Noda is unlikely to do so as prime minister, or make any strident statements about war criminals or Japan’s wartime past.