The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which has won the August 30 general election by a landslide, has vowed to construct a more “equal” framework of Japan-U.S. relations. In parallel, it said it will promote diplomacy with Asian countries, including China. But what challenges and opportunities do the two Asian powerhouses face under the new DPJ administration?

Promising Changes

Sino-Japanese relations have experienced ups and downs in the past a few years. During the Junichiro Koizumi administration, the relations soured after the Prime Minister's visit to Tokyo's war- related Yasukuni Shrine. The frozen bilateral relations have affected trade and economic cooperation to some degree.

However, the episode has made it even clearer for Japan that a sound Japan-China relationship is in its best interests. Therefore, bilateral ties were strengthened under the three consecutive Prime Ministers after Koizumi, namely Abe, Fukuda and Aso.

The DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama has made it clear that he would not visit the shrine as the nation's Prime Minister. He also suggested other cabinet members and government officials also avoid visiting the shrine. This could provide a basis for developing relations with China as well as other neighbouring Asian countries.

Currently, mutual political understanding and trust between the two countries has been reinforced by frequent high-level talks. A number of DPJ members have frequented China during their political career and have profound knowledge about the country, including heavyweights such as Ichiro Ozawa and Naoto Kan. Analysts believe understanding would promote friendship.

Besides, bilateral trade has continued to grow. According to statistics from the Japanese government, China has overtaken the United States to become Japan's biggest trading partner since 2007. Meanwhile, the Chinese population in Japan has for the first time outnumbered the Korean population to become the largest foreign community in Japan and China has become a major source for tourism, for Japan.

Other promising changes include Japan's growing economic reliance on China during the global economic slowdown, and among others, Japan's need to coordinate with China on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

Challenges remain

All the positive elements do not necessarily produce smooth bilateral relations. There remain a number of hurdles in Sino-Japanese relations.

On territorial disputes and exploration of the East China Sea, it is never easy to achieve agreements through negotiation as these issues are highly sensitive in both countries. It is unlikely for Japan to make major concessions even if DPJ becomes the ruling party.

Food safety is another area of concern. The issue of poisonous dumplings has never been completely resolved, and food safety and product quality are at the centre of trade relations between the two countries.

Another factor is the negative image of China held by many Japanese. A recent media survey has shown that Japanese people's feeling towards China deteriorated after the dumplings issue. But a more profound reason for the growing antipathy could be the fear of a rising power. It would take some time for the image to gradually improve.

Furthermore, the DPJ has always attached great importance to human rights issues. DPJ Secretary-General Katsuya Okada, who is expected to become the next foreign minister, has said the issues of Tibet and Xinjiang are basically China's domestic issues, but if human rights are violated in such areas Japan would “make its own voice heard as a member of the international community.”

However, the focus of DPJ at present is still on Japan's domestic politics, in particular, next year's upper house election. Analysts believe it is impossible for DPJ to make major changes in its policies with China.

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