Yoshihide Suga set to be Japan PM: Chinese media expresses guarded optimism, raises issues on ‘hardline attitudes’

While China is Japan’s largest trading partner, Beijing increasing military aggression and the coronavirus pandemic have strained relations between the two countries

Yoshihide Suga set to be Japan PM: Chinese media expresses guarded optimism, raises concerns on 'hardline attitudes'

File image of Yoshihide Suga. AP

Chinese media outlets have been guarded in their reaction to the news of Yoshihide Suga being set to succeed Shinzo Abe as Japan’s prime minister.

While the broad sentiment expressed by the media outlets has been that Japan’s alliance with the United States is likely to remain its priority, they have also expressed hope that Japan, under Suga, will work towards ensuring cordial ties with Beijing.

While China is Japan’s largest trading partner, Beijing increasing military aggression and the coronavirus pandemic have strained relations between the two countries.

Concern over ‘hardline attitudes’

The Global Times noted Suga’s earlier assertions that “will not be afraid to express Japan’s claims to China should he become prime minister” and expressed concern over ‘rising hardline attitudes towards China’.

The newspaper, which is a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, quoted analysts as saying that a worsening bilateral relationship will bring visible harm to Japan. However, it said that the hostile remarks made by Suga, as also the other candidates who were vying to succeed Abe, are likely “just a show to please conservative and pro-US forces in the party to win their support”.

The article quoted Da Zhigang, director and research fellow at the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, as saying, “On the one hand, China will retaliate against Japan if it makes provocations in the future. On the other, China will release friendly signals to encourage Japan to boost win-win cooperation.”

Another article in Global Times struck a somewhat less belligerent note, and quoted analysts as saying that Tokyo will continue to base itself on its alliance with the US, while also developing its relations with China to maximize its own interests.

An article in South China Morning Post quoted Hu Lingyuan, director of Fudan University’s Centre for Japanese Studies, as saying, “Abe has made significant contributions to the improvement in China and Japan relations. As someone picked by Abe to be the cabinet secretary, the most important cabinet role, his (Suga’s) fundamental ideologies and attitude towards China should be similar.”

China Daily, another mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, quoted Erbiao Dai, vice-president of the Asian Growth Research Institute, as expressing a different view. Dai was quoted as saying that while many expect that there will be continuity from Abe’s regime, Suga may also seek a different path.

“He has to face immediate challenges like the pandemic, and his performance will decide whether he ends up an interim leader or stays after a general election,” Dai noted.

Meanwhile, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, has responded to Suga being elected as the head of Japan’s ruling party as saying, “China stands ready to work with Japan’s newly elected party and government leader to continue to stay committed to the principles set out in the four political documents between the two countries, deepen cooperation on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic as well as promoting economic and social development, and to push forward the continuous improvement of bilateral ties.”

China-Japan ties in recent times

As the New York Times points out, in recent years, Japan has sought to act as a counterbalance to the rising aggression of China, which has carried out provocative maritime activities in both the East and South China Seas and cracked down on Hong Kong.

However, Japan is also facing significant domestic challenges, including addressing labour shortages and vulnerabilities due to climate change.

The article quotes Jeffrey Hornung, an analyst at the RAND Corp, as saying, “China has shown that it takes advantage of situations and uncertainty…If you have somebody that they see as weak or green in the teeth or not very capable, we might see China step it up in a way that Japan hasn’t experienced for a while.”

That said, Japan has pushed back against Chinese aggression in recent times. In July, its annual defence review accused China of pushing its territorial claims amid the coronavirus pandemic. The review also questioned whether Beijing was spreading propaganda and disinformation as it provided medical aid to nations fighting COVID-19.

Before that, Japan’s Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura was quoted as saying by Reuters, “We have become dependent on China. We need to make supply chains more robust and diverse, broadening our supply sources and increasing domestic production.”

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