China apparently views new Prime Minister Naoto Kan as easier to deal with than his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama, and has already started sending friendly signals to Tokyo in the hopes of promoting closer bilateral relations.

Beijing was caught off guard by the sudden resignation of Hatoyama after just eight months in office. Chinese leaders had expected his regime to last at least two years, or even as long as the four-year term of current Lower House members.

Beijing now appears relieved to learn that Kan, unlike Hatoyama, does not talk of making the Japanese-American relationship “more equitable,” or of establishing an “East Asia Economic Community,” which can be interpreted as challenging China’s strategies.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao lost no time talking directly with Kan through the newly created “hot line” June 13. The two agreed to work closely on developing natural gas resources in the East China Sea as well as exchanging information on allegations that the North Korean navy sank a South Korean warship.

According to a Chinese researcher well versed in Japanese politics, Beijing had been concerned that, after Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan came to power last year, he went too far in alienating bureaucrats in an attempt to shift power to elected politicians. Such a shift, he points out, was considered counterproductive in view of the vital roles those bureaucrats have long played in drafting and implementing domestic and diplomatic policies.

As one example, the researcher cites the appointment of Uichiro Niwa, former chairman of Itochu Corp., one of Japan’s major trading firms, as Japan’s new ambassador to China, replacing Yuji Miyamoto, a career diplomat. It is thought, the researcher says, that the unusual move of naming a man from the business sector to such a high diplomatic post could conceivably lead to disharmony among policymakers.

What has bothered the Chinese leadership is the political instability in Japan, exemplified by the frequent changes of government — there have been five prime ministers in as many years — and by the rise of a number of splinter political parties. This, it is feared, has led top Japanese politicians to pay more attention to the immediate wishes of voters than to basic strategies that will serve the nation in the long term.

While welcoming Kan’s rise to power, Beijing does not have much hope for Tokyo to come up with long-term strategies anytime soon for strengthening the bilateral relationship of trust and resolving disputes between the two countries.

In an essay that appeared in the recent issue of Huanqiu (Globe) magazine, published by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, Lin Limin said that as China nears superpower status, further enhancement of cooperative relations with its neighbors is a key strategy for making China strong and prosperous. Lin, a research fellow at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, points out that the hostile policies taken by the Soviet Union toward its neighbors ultimately became the cause of its demise.

Beijing’s policies in reality, however, sometimes run counter to what is advocated by Lin, as evidenced by its military buildup, Chinese helicopters’ close approach to Japanese destroyers in the East China Sea in April, and its support for North Korea despite Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons ambitions and provocations against South Korea.

All these issues are directly related to China’s military strategies in East Asia. It will not be easy to find common interest between Tokyo and Beijing on questions related to North Korea, especially in view of China’s refusal to acknowledge evidence showing that a fired North Korean torpedo caused the South Korean warship to sink.

In the same issue, Global magazine carried a feature article saying that Ichiro Ozawa, who stepped down as the all-powerful DPJ secretary general when Hatoyama resigned, still exerts strong influence within the party and, depending on the outcome of Sunday’s Upper House election, could become a stumbling block to Kan’s bid to remain in power.

Ozawa received a big welcome from the highest Chinese leadership when he visited Beijing as head of a large mission last fall. Even after he was forced to step down, China appears to think highly of him. This is reminiscent of how China continued to show deep respect for former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who restored diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Beijing in 1972, even after Tanaka was arrested and indicted for involvement in the Lockheed payoff scandal.

In the view of Chinese leaders, only Ozawa has the power to build a strategic relationship between Japan and China, just as nobody else could have done what Tanaka did nearly four decades ago in overcoming opposition from anti-Beijing forces within his own party.

Chinese officials responsible for drawing up policies toward Japan saw a shadow of Ozawa in former Prime Minister Hatoyama’s call for a “more equitable relationship” with the United States and the establishment of an East Asia Economic Community.

One leading Chinese official has confided that if Japan became less dependent on the U.S., it would promote better ties with China and contribute to peace and stability in the region.

That being the case, the Chinese leadership is not happy with the rise to power of new DPJ Secretary General Yukio Edano and other people who have distanced themselves from Ozawa.

One Chinese expert on Japan was quoted as saying: “Prime Minister Kan has only limited leadership. Besides, we hear he is not much interested in strategic matters. Nevertheless, since we welcome his basic posture of promoting friendly relations with China, what we have to do is to work closely with him on individual issues.”

China is paying keen attention to how Kan and his new DPJ leadership fare in the Upper House election, as its outcome could open the way for a comeback by Ozawa.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the July issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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