China is expected to watch carefully how Japan's former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who won the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election Wednesday, will develop diplomacy toward the neighbor amid souring bilateral relations.
Chilly ties with South Korea will also be tested under Kishida, who is set to become prime minister in early October, but a quick improvement is unlikely, South Korean media says.
As next year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Sino-Japanese diplomatic ties, Kishida has affirmed the importance of holding summit talks with China.
Later Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing that China wants to "promote sound and stable development of relations" between the two Asian countries under the new Japanese government.
During the election campaign, however, Kishida vowed that if elected he would set up a new post of special adviser to the prime minister on human rights issues, in an apparent bid to counter China's alleged human rights abuses in its Xinjiang region and its crackdown on Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.
His pledge prompted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian to comment earlier this month that "China's internal affairs brook no foreign interference" and that "Japanese politicians should stop making an issue out of China."
The Global Times, a tabloid of China's ruling Communist Party, said last week that Kishida is a "representative of liberal politicians within his party" and that "his policy is known for being moderate."
But the newspaper was also critical, saying that after Kishida announced his participation in the leadership race he had "repeatedly used offensive remarks on public occasions to win the attention of audiences, trying to create an image of a hard-line politician by attacking China."
The leadership of President Xi Jinping has also been irritated by Kishida, who has welcomed Taiwan's filing of a formal application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), diplomatic sources said.
Strain between China and Japan has been intensifying recently, especially after incumbent Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga confirmed in April with U.S. President Joe Biden "the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait."
But Beijing is also relieved by the defeat in the ruling party's leadership race of former communications minister Sanae Takaichi, one of the two female candidates, the sources said.
Takaichi has been lambasted by Chinese state-run media as a "rightwing" nationalist. She had promised to continue visiting Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine even as prime minister, which would draw criticism from China and South Korea as they see it as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.
A 42-year-old Japanese worker in Beijing said, "We were very concerned that if Takaichi became the prime minister, ties between Japan and China would deteriorate sharply."
In the early 2000s, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the war-linked shrine sparked a wave of anti-Japanese protests in China, jeopardizing the safety of Japanese citizens living in the country.
South Korea said it will continue to cooperate with the Cabinet to be formed by Kishida for improvement of "future-oriented" bilateral ties.
Aside from the brief comment from the presidential palace, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency said Kishida, who served as foreign minister from 2012 to 2017, is known in the country for his role in a 2015 agreement struck between the South Korean and Japanese governments.
The deal was to "finally and irreversibly" resolve the issue of former "comfort women" over their treatment in Japanese military brothels, into which they were forced or coerced under various circumstances, including abduction, deception and poverty, before and during World War II.
The Korea Herald newspaper said analysts in South Korea are pessimistic on a dramatic shift in strained ties between the neighbors under Kishida, "as he will likely adhere to his predecessor Suga and (Shinzo) Abe's hawkish policy on Seoul."
The newspaper added that many people in South Korea "believe Japan has not taken adequate responsibility for its colonial atrocities."
South Korea-Japan relations remain in their worst state in decades over the comfort women and wartime labor issues.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.