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Japan abandons bid to make China a key pillar of its foreign policy

China's recent aggressive behavior over disputed islands spurred Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan to turn his back on earlier efforts to rebalance ties with China and the United States.

By Staff writer / November 17, 2010

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan spoke at a press conference at the conclusion of the APEC summit in Yokohama, Japan, Nov. 14.

Greg Baker/AP

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Tokyo

Shaken by China’s ferocious behavior during a recent territorial dispute over a string of uninhabited islets, Japan has abandoned its earlier plans to make ties with Beijing a key pillar of a bold new foreign policy.

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Instead, Tokyo is falling back for support on its traditional ally the United States, and seeking succor from other Asian nations who share fresh Japanese doubts about the regional implications of China’s rise.

The novel goal that former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama trumpeted as he led the Democratic Party of Japan to its first electoral victory just 15 months ago – recalibrating Japan’s relationships with Washington and Beijing – is already a fading memory.

“Re-balancing is not on anyone’s agenda now,” says one government official who asked not to be identified. “It’s been tried and it failed. The crisis over the Senkaku islands [known to Chinese as the Diaoyu] has beefed up Japan’s relations with America again.”

Since Mr. Hatoyama’s resignation last June, his successor Naoto Kan “has canceled everything that Hatoyama did” to modify Japan’s two most important foreign relationships, says Masaru Kohno, professor of politics at Waseda University in Tokyo.

Reconsidering relations with China

Yet in the back of Japanese policymakers’ minds lurks the suspicion that they will have to find a way, one day, of improving relations with their biggest trade partner. “Tense relations between Japan and China have negative consequences for the whole of East Asia,” says one Foreign Ministry official. “And we cannot just move out of the region.”

A lot of Japanese citizens don’t find their region very comfortable, however. In a poll published last week by the daily Yomiuri newspaper, 87 percent of respondents said they did not trust China, and almost as many saw Beijing as posing the same military threat as North Korea.

“Japan and China will start talking to each other again at some point,” as they have after previous diplomatic spats, predicts Professor Kohno. “But what is different about this crisis is that it has led people to think that maybe we have to reconsider relations with China, even if it means sacrificing trade.

“A significant number of Japanese are willing to sacrifice some economic well-being for the sake of a more principled position with regard to China,” Kohno adds. “Anti-Chinese feeling is growing more entrenched among Japan’s political class and ordinary people.”

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