The PRC Cautions Noda.

The swearing in of Japan’s new Prime Minister this month, Yoshiko Noda, despite his unusual background, has played out as a relative non- event in the international news sphere. This is perhaps unsurprising considering the severity of the 2011 Tuhoku earthquake, the resulting nuclear fallout from damaged power plants and also the fact that Noda is Japan’s 8th head of state in under 10 years, and, at least in the minds of some; not destined to be around for long.

Noda’s appointment has gone relatively unnoticed except in two nations, one obviously being Japan where he is a rare kind of politician, being from a poor and politically unconnected family. Despite his roots however, Noda graduated from a prestigious political sciences University and is touted as an economist of note; as such his appeal is both in being a populist and the pragmatic choice in a nation suffering through an unprecedented recession. The second nation where Noda’s appointment has been front page news is in China, where previous comments from Noda about Japanese war criminals has outraged many at the same time as the media has picked over the effect that recent Japanese political instability has had upon Sino-Japanese relations.

Despite its’ recent economic and environmental woes, Japan still has the third largest economy in the world and is one of China’s largest trading partners. Economically at least, the relationship between the two is very important for Japanese businesses, Chinese technological advancement and the region as a whole. As such, the airing of China’s presumed worries about the new Japanese head of state, if not also useful for pressuring Japanese foreign policy, are valid. In Japan however there will be distrust over the ingenuousness of Chinese claims and demands as there are longstanding historical precedents of the Chinese taking advantage of Japanese political disarray. Considering this, their deeply troubled past and recent territorial conflicts in the East China Sea; without a doubt, the Sino- Japanese political relationship is as dysfunctional as two peaceful states can have.

An August 2011 article by China Daily titled, “Kan’s Woeful Legacy”makes the case for disillusionment regarding territorial disputes over the Daiyou Islands as well as Japanese worries about the PRC military which the China’s Daily argues is scaremongering for political effect. The article lays most of this blame for bad relations on the previous administration of Naoto Kan which famously imprisoned a Chinese fishing boat captain who strayed into contested waters and rammed a Japanese lifeguard boat. The article gives the new Prime Minister Noda the benefit of the doubt on these issues, but charges him responsible for repairing ties between the two nations; “the incoming Prime Minister and his Cabinet will need the political wisdom to emerge from the hawkish shadows of the previous disposition”.

A second article, a direct Chinese to English translation of a People’s Daily article by Zhao Qizheng, also from August, echoes the same sentiment as the aforementioned China Daily piece. Citing research that shows “how weak the ties between the two countries’ people are”; with 70% of Chinese citizens and close to 80% of Japanese citizens holding unfavourable opinion of the other, the article demands a steadier hand when it comes to “sensitive issues” like the Daiyou conflict. Here again the blame is lain at the feet of Japan, with the implication that China expects more from the new administration.

A final article from the nationalistic Global Times, late in August by Liu Linlin however, piled on the new Japanese Prime Minister for recent statements he made, backing up Chinese apprehensions about his hawkish past and support of Imperial Japan-era war criminals. Though correct in a technical sense due to Japanese political wrangling, Noda’s statements to the Japanese parliament that some “class A” war criminals were not in-fact, criminals in Japan was cited by the article as being deeply offensive to all Asian peoples. The article went on to argue that, as 2012 is the 40th anniversary of the establishment of political ties between Japan and China that Noda has “an opportunity to repair ties and strengthen cooperation” and that the only way for him to do that would be to step up and take the responsibility upon himself.

Two final articles by People’s Daily on the 30th and 31st of August also made the argument that Japan was to blame for the recent diplomatic low between the two nations. Settling on Japan’s “revolving door leadership” as an impediment to consistency of relations as well as their belligerent stance on war criminals and disputes over inalienable and “integral part(s) of China’s territory” the articles roundly condemned previous Japanese foreign relations and demands better from Noda. However, in a manner that could be seen as the offering of a fig leaf to the new Prime Minister, both articles made pains not to blame Noda directly, despite his perceived hawkish, war crime-denying past. Indeed, disregarding the last article’s undiplomatic stance towards Daiyou; “Beijing is willing to shelve differences… on condition that Tokyo recognized China’s complete sovereignty” much of the noise from the PRC re Noda seems to have taken the form of positive reinforcement, assuming he can keep his hawkish impulses under control.

For a man that has made notably hawkish statements throughout his career, especially regarding Japanese war criminals (he once denounced a sitting Prime Minister for not going to the notorious Yasakuni Shrine) the PRC’s response to Noda has been notably muted. In gently warning Noda, China is neither giving Noda ammunition against the prospect of the PRC “meddling in Japanese foreign policy”, nor goading him into further brinksmanship for the sake of appearing strong in his new position. Though standing intransigent on the old matters of Chinese sovereignty to any and all historical claims, for the most part the Chinese are showing responsible and shrewd political behaviour; and thus the newly annointed “mature actor” has now served the ball into Noda’s court.

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