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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.

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Such feelings were reinforced by China’s detention of four Japanese businessmen as Beijing sought the release of a Chinese fishing captain held by the Japanese prosecutor for allegedly ramming a Coast Guard patrol vessel. Japanese importers complain that China is still holding up exports of rare earths needed by Japanese high-technology manufacturers, two months after the crisis.

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“We all realize…China’s true nature,” says the Foreign Ministry official. “Maybe people and politicians have realized the Chinese essence, thanks to this incident.”

Japanese anger at China’s behavior is further fueled by resentment at the way their giant neighbor has overtaken them as the world’s second-largest economy, says Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, deputy head of the ruling DPJ’s policy research board.

“The impact of the Senkaku incident will last because of people's frustrations about structural problems,” Mr. Yamaguchi suggests. “It will take time for the Japanese to get used to accepting the reality that China is No. 2 now, not us.”

What's to be done?

At the same time, points out Taro Kono, a senior member of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, “we cannot simply terminate the relationship with China; there is much too much Japanese investment there. The government has to explain to citizens what needs to be done.”

Japanese leaders have been seeking formal talks with their Chinese counterparts for weeks, so far without success. Chinese President Hu Jintao consented to meet Mr. Kan last weekend at the APEC summit in Yokohama for a brief informal conversation, but Chinese officials stressed that this did not mark a return to diplomatic normalcy.

Facing the prospect that China may play rough again in future disputes, says the Foreign Ministry official, “Japan can’t face China alone. We have to step up cooperation with our main ally and with likeminded countries in the region.”

Among the signs of such a policy, foreign diplomats say, are the recent sale of two Japanese nuclear power plants to Vietnam, and Japanese observers attending recent US-South Korean naval exercises for the first time.

“We are deepening our dialog in a quiet way” with Southeast Asian nations, says the government official, building on common concerns about China’s territorial ambitions. Like Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have territorial disputes with Beijing over small islands that may control significant energy reserves.

The South China Sea, the site of these disputes, “could be an element for closer cooperation between Japan and Southeast Asia,” the official adds.

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