Beijing won’t be wildly delighted by Japan’s choice of its new prime minister, finance minister Yoshihiko Noda, but it could have been much worse. Noda beat out four factional rivals for the leadership of the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), thus ensuring the formal anointment of the Diet as prime minister on Tuesday. Among the defeated quartet was the popular former foreign minister Seiji Maehara, a noted China hawk.
Noda made some injudicious remarks earlier this year about those enshrined in the Yasukuni Shrine as being ‘not really criminals’, which will give Beijing a stick to beat him with should it choose to use it (some state media commentaries are already recalling those remarks). Yet the bigger issue for Beijing is that Noda, a fiscal conservative schooled in free-market economics at the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, may instinctively tilt more towards Washington than Beijing, as would also be expected for someone who has spent so long at Japan’s U.S.-centric finance ministry.
The effect might not be that noticeable on policy. More importantly, to this Bystander, Noda has little foreign policy experience and little need to acquire it in short order unless forced to. He was deputy to outgoing prime minister, Naoto Kan, as prime minister and finance minister before that. So he is deeply imbued with Japan’s primary domestic policy challenges: post-earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima reconstruction; years of deflation; the high yen and mounting deficits. He will have more than enough on his plate at home — exacerbated by a divided DPJ as his election marked a defeat for the DPJ’s largest faction led by Ichiro Ozawa. Foreign policy initiatives would be a distraction.
In a Noda administration, for however long it may last in Japan’s political shambles (six prime ministers in five years, three since the DPJ’s historic capture of the lower house of parliament two years ago), the U.S.-Japan alliance will continue to be the centerpiece of Japan’s security. Political ties with Southeast Asia will strengthen, advertised as a counterweight to Beijing’s growing regional clout. Meanwhile, economic relations with China and South Korea will continue to be developed to bring some prosperity across the transom. All much as has been happening. The question is to what extent Beijing will seek to test Noda over the disputed territorial conflicts in the East China Sea. We expect the temptation will prove too great to resist, if only to see how far he can be pushed.