TOKYO Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is turning his back on his Democratic Party's early effort to recast Tokyo's U.S.-centered diplomacy and embrace Asia more closely, instead putting the U.S. alliance back at the core of security policy.
But Noda, who says his paratrooper father's military career influenced his views on security, faces serious challenges to keeping ties with both close ally Washington and rising rival Beijing on an even keel.
The toughest task for Noda, who took over this month as Japan's sixth premier in five years, may be convincing Beijing and Washington that he will last long enough to be taken seriously.
"People would like to be optimistic, but they still wonder if Noda can hold it together," said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
Noda -- who makes his diplomatic debut at the United Nations next week -- clearly wants to avoid the perceived mistakes of his two immediate predecessors, one of whom strained U.S.-Japan ties, while the other lurched into a bitter territorial feud that chilled relations with top trading partner China.
"I think it is not necessary at this time to put forth a grand vision such as an East Asian Community," the 54-year-old Noda, a former finance minister, wrote in an article this month.
"What we must do before that is create scenarios for Japan's response in case of a serious territorial incident," he added. "We should never escalate an incident but to protect our territory, we must assert our claims and act when needed."
Yukio Hatoyama floated the idea of an East Asian Community inspired by the European Union when he took office as the first Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) premier in 2009, sparking fears in some U.S. circles that Tokyo was tilting toward Beijing.
His failed effort to move the U.S. Marines' Futenma air base off Japan's Okinawa island -- reluctant host to about half the U.S. military in Japan -- also frayed ties with Washington.
Noda's immediate predecessor Naoto Kan oversaw an unsettling row with China, first arresting a Chinese trawler captain in disputed waters and then letting him go, prompting domestic criticism that he had caved in to Beijing.
Noda thus inherits a brittle relationship with China in which growing economic interdependence vies with mutual mistrust born of territorial disputes and resource rivalry, Japanese wariness of Beijing's expanding naval reach and Chinese bitterness over Japan's military aggression before and during World War Two.
Add a looming leadership change in China next year, and Japan's anxiety about its declining regional and global clout, and experts see a significant risk of more nasty rows.
WELCOME WORDS FOR WASHINGTON
"I don't think Japan and China have recovered (from last year's confrontation) and they don't have the depth of strategic engagement. There is not a script that has reconciliation as an end-point," Smith said. "We will probably see the Japan-China relationship punctuated by these kinds of eruptions."
What some see as Noda's nationalist tinge could also pose problems, although optimists expect him to adopt a pragmatic rather than ideological stance toward China. "Probably the new prime minister would like to pursue down-to-earth foreign policies," said former senior Japanese diplomat Hitoshi Tanaka.
Noda's reiteration before taking office of the view that Japanese wartime leaders convicted by an Allied tribunal after World War Two were not "war criminals" under domestic law raised hackles in China. So did his warning that China might take "provocative action" as its leadership changes next year.
Noda has since backed the Japanese government view accepting the guilty verdicts of the Allied tribunal and stated that he will not pay homage at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where several wartime leaders are honored. Visits to Yasukuni by Japanese prime ministers have infuriated Beijing in the past.
"Noda has indicated that he will not visit the Yasukuni Shrine, so that issue will not come up," said Liu Jiangyong, a professor of international relations at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "But because of his past stance on historical issues, Noda could attract the attention of the Chinese media if he makes any inappropriate statements."
While Noda's comments to date may make Beijing wary, his vocal commitment to the U.S. alliance and talk of Japan's need to be able to defend itself will play well in Washington.
Still, U.S. policymakers including President Barack Obama -- now set to meet his third Japanese premier in two years -- will want to see if Noda can match words with action.
"He's talking the talk that Washington would like Japanese leaders to talk. The question is, will he walk the walk?" said Andrew Horvat, director of the Stanford Center in Kyoto.
Noda has committed to a 2006 agreement to move Futenma to a less populated area of Okinawa as part of a broader realignment of U.S. forces that would shift some 8,000 troops to Guam.
But local Okinawa residents oppose the move, while U.S. lawmakers looking for budget items to cut could find the costs of a transfer to Guam a tempting target.
"We've still got issues on the table that have the capacity to rise to the surface and poison both sides," CFR's Smith said.
(Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Daniel Magnowski)