China is on the verge of installing a new leader, presumably Vice President Xi Jingping, to lead the nation for the coming decade at a time when its economy and society are showing strains and its growing military expansion and tensions with its neighbors, particularly Japan, are promising turbulence ahead.

The helm change is being initiated by the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th National Congress, which kicked off last Thursday. The gathering is expected to usher in a new era under Xi, who will be in charge for the next 10 years.

Saddled with a host of problems, China in many ways is at a turning point.

Xi faces the challenge of trying to initiate structural changes to sustain China’s upward growth trajectory and maintain stability. The nation’s growing military might meanwhile is raising alarm bells in the United States and countries neighboring the Asian giant.

A major external challenge facing Xi is how to deal with Japan, whose relations with China have hit an all-time low since diplomatic ties were established in 1972.

The main bone of contention are the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. China claims the uninhabited islets, which it calls Diaoyu, and has been engaged in provocative maritime actions near them of late with the Japan Coast Guard on station.

Experts recently interviewed by The Japan Times warned that Xi is likely to take a tougher stance against Japan than his predecessors, because any compromise by Beijing could deal critical damage to a political leader in the event of a power struggle.

Others meanwhile say it is unclear what diplomatic stance Xi will take with Japan.

“It’s uncertain how Xi will navigate the escalating tension,” said Akio Takahara, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Tokyo.

Some experts note that China is already assuming a hardline position. News accounts say President Hu Jintao put Xi in charge of the Senkaku row in September.

When Xi met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in September, he labeled Japan’s nationalization of the islets a “travesty” and told the U.S. not to interfere in the dispute.

“Even the most pro-Japanese leaders have to take a hard line toward Japan when sovereignty over the territorial claim is at stake,” said Masaru Soma, former chief of the Sankei Shimbun’s Hong Kong bureau.

“If not, they will risk being politically stigmatized as ‘hanjian,’ which means traitor in Chinese,” he said.

Hosei University professor Zhao Hongwei said it is possible Xi may be willing to mitigate the tension after he takes the helm. He could try proposing that the situation return to the status quo.

“If Japan does not respond to such an overture from Xi, China can claim to the global community that Japan is to blame for not willing to sit down at the bargaining table,” said Zhao, who specializes in Chinese politics and international relations in East Asia.

Xi may hold negative sentiment toward Japan based on his past experiences, according to Zhao. When he first visited Japan as vice president in 2009, Xi may have felt insulted because the Imperial Household initially balked at his ‘last-minute’ request to meet with Emperor Akihito, Zhao said.

Since then, Xi has received major Japanese political visitors to Beijing, indicating he may have become the top Chinese leader in handling diplomatic policy toward Tokyo, according to Zhao.

But he apparently lost face in 2010 when Japan briefly arrested a Chinese fishing boat captain after his vessel was involved in a clash with coast guard cutters trying to shoo it away from the Senkakus.

The central government’s purchase of the islets may have been the last straw that foreclosed on any trust Xi might have had toward Japan, Zhao said.

“Xi might be feeling that all his efforts to build a sound relationship with Japan have been betrayed,” he said.

Yet under Beijing’s system of collective leadership, Xi’s position alone may not be the deciding factor.

“There are no charismatic leaders like Mao Zedong or Den Xiaoping now. Every decision requires a consensus from the Central Politburo Standing Committee of China,” said Zhu Jianrong, a professor of Chinese politics at Toyogakuen University.

China’s stance toward Japan will be much more based on the sentiment of the public, which has been increasingly critical of the government, Zhu said. Public protests have surged over the last 10 years. One study even indicated there were more than 100,000 in one year alone.

Last month on the eve of the congress, when the Communist Party was its most vigilant against antigovernment sentiment, thousands of people fearing pollution took to the streets to protest a planned $8.9 billion petrochemical facility expansion in the eastern city of Ningbo. The protest forced the city to halt the plan.

“The new leadership has to learn how to get along with the public without tightening its grip on them too much,” said Zhu.

Zhao noted the Senkaku row will not be resolved in the short term. Beijing may try to restore a sense of normalcy in economic relations with Japan by separating the islet dispute, he said.

“The Chinese are, after all, pragmatic when it comes to the economy,” he said.

Whatever diplomatic stance Xi may take, experts agree there will be one clear shift in bilateral relations: China is more economically powerful. This gives Beijing stronger political leverage in negotiations with Japan.

“China is likely to take the initiative in Sino-Japanese relations under the new leader by leveraging its global influence,” said Satoshi Amako, a professor at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University. “Yet the government of the Democratic Party of Japan lacks strong communications channels with China.”

The only person in the DPJ considered to have strong ties with China was Ichiro Ozawa, and he has left the party.

Amako also said China may regard the Senkakus as key to its Pacific military expansion strategy, posing a direct challenge to U.S. supremacy even as Washington is in the middle of its strategic pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region.

Although the U.S. does not want confrontation, Amako said, China may bypass Japan and deal directly with Washington.

“Japan needs to pay attention to the power balance between China and the U.S.,” he said.

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