World News

Japan Democrat win could warm China ties

BEIJING (Reuters) - The expected victory for the opposition Democrats in Japan’s election this weekend could open the way for a tentative improvement in ties with China, with both powers keen to avoid distractions from their economic priorities.

Opinion polls show that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is set to be ousted in Sunday’s election after five decades of near-unbroken rule, forcing Beijing to adjust to an untested and potentially fractious administration in Tokyo.

Analysts believe this is not a big threat to relations between the world’s second- and third-biggest economies.

Both are going to be focused on shoring up economic growth in the wake of the global slump, and the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) willingness to confront the nation’s wartime past and its determination to forge better ties across Asia both augur well.

“Problems and conflicts in China-Japan relations won’t disappear if the Democratic Party comes to power, but overall its policies are quite positive for relations,” said Liu Jiangyong, an expert on Japan at Tsinghua University in Beijing who has advised the government.

Liu said he has met several Democratic Party leaders to discuss relations with China.

“There are certainly different voices within the (Democratic) Party, and initially that could create some uncertainty, but overall they want better relations, and so do we,” he said.

Serious divisions between Tokyo and Beijing would throw a shadow over bilateral trade and investment growth.

With the United States’ appetite for Japanese and Chinese exports unlikely to return to past levels even if the U.S. economy begins reviving, neither Asian power wants to risk destabilizing relations, said Sun Cheng, an expert on Japanese politics at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing.

“The broader economic trends are what will shape the development of China-Japan relations,” said Sun.

“Under a Democratic government, Japan would still have an ambivalent attitude (toward China), needing to strengthen economic interdependence but worried about the consequences.”


Under the LDP, Japan’s ties with China have veered between icy hostility and ambivalent reconciliation.

(For facts on ties see.)

Relations reached their chilliest in decades under Junichiro Koizumi, who while prime minister from 2001 to 2006 repeatedly visited the Yasukuni Shrine for war dead in Tokyo.

China and other Asian governments see the shrine, which includes convicted war criminals among the honored dead, as a provocative symbol of Japan’s often brutal occupation of the region before and during World War Two.

Koizumi’s successors have avoided visiting Yasukuni, and relations with Beijing have warmed. Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama has said he would not visit Yasukuni while Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals are honored there.

But the renewed goodwill has served to contain, rather than resolve, a dispute over natural gas beds under seas between the two countries. And in the background is Japan’s deeper anxiety with China’s growing economic, military and political muscle.

If Japan wakes up on Monday morning with Hatoyama as prime minister-elect, those disputes and anxieties will remain a part of the regional landscape, said Sun, the Chinese professor.

China may snap at a new government in Tokyo if it presses Beijing over its controls on human rights and the tense regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. Beijing calls these purely domestic issues, and the widely nationalist Chinese public is especially prickly about criticism from wartime foe Japan.

But, in power, the Democrats would be unlikely to depart from the current LDP government’s cautious handling of human rights, said Phil Deans, professor of international relations at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

The Democrats’ vows to work more closely with Japan’s neighbors may even open the way for closer cooperation with Beijing on North Korea and other regional troubles, said Huang Dahui, a professor of Japanese politics at Renmin University in Beijing.

Hatoyama has also chided Japan’s current prime minister, Taro Aso, for promoting “values” diplomacy, saying it is also important to build ties with nations that do not share values.

“To consolidate power, the (Japanese) Democrats will need a stable foreign policy, especially with the U.S. and China,” said Liu, the Tsinghua professor. “Japan will focus on itself first.”

Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo; Editing by Ken Wills and John Chalmers