Many Japanese media outlets have criticized Japan's government for having "failed to stick to its original stance" after Tokyo released Zhan Qixiong, the captain of the Chinese fishing trawler, on Sept 25. Zhan and his crew were illegally detained by Japan after their fishing boat collided with two Japan Coast Guard ships near the Diaoyu Islands, which since ancient times have been part of China's territory. The crew returned home earlier.
The opposition parties in Japan may take the media's attack forward against Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has survived a leadership challenge from his party rival, Ichiro Ozawa, former head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). This doesn't augur well for the Sino-Japanese relations, at least in the near future.
On Monday, Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara summoned Chinese ambassador to Japan, Cheng Yonghua, to enquire about the four Japanese, who have been detained at Shijiazhuang in China's Hebei province because of "national security". This is a sign that Japan's cabinet could take a more hawkish stance against China under mounting domestic pressure.
Despite the major setback in the election to the Upper House of the Japanese Parliament (or Diet) in July, Kan got the support of a large number of his DPJ members in the party's presidential election on Sept 14. He won handsomely, securing 721 votes against Ozawa's 491. But when it came to DPJ parliament members, he had a thin margin of victory - 206 to 200 votes - against Ozawa. Given the intra-party rivalry in the DPJ, Kan can hardly feel comfortable even after the victory. Moreover, he faces the tough task of not only uniting the administration, but also his faction-ridden party.
After the election to the Upper House, the DPJ dominates the Lower House and the opposition the Upper House. In such a case, a bill passed by the Lower House could probably be vetoed by the Upper House. On the other hand, divisions within the ruling DPJ is widening. The list of newly appointed Cabinet members shows Kan has ignored Ozawa's supporters. He has not only retained the anti-Ozawa "Seiji Maehara's faction", but also elevated its status.
The pro-United States Maehara has unveiled his hard-line stance against China. Gone are the DPJ's policies of an equal partnership with the US and strengthening strategic ties with China. They have given way to a China-containment policy.
Kan's enterprise-oriented policy has moved away from the original people-first approach, adopted by Ozawa and former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama even before the DPJ assumed power in Japan. The "Ozawa doctrine" and the "Maehara doctrine" are in sharp contrast to each other and highlight the main division within the DPJ.
Given a divided Diet and ruling party, and other challenges, Kan's new Cabinet has a lot of problems to solve. To begin with, old problems remain. The DPJ has been in office for only a year, but it has already had its third Cabinet, which reflects the fluidity of present-day Japanese politics. Kan seems to be inconsistent with his policies. And though he may be known as a left-wing grassroots civic activist, his economic policies tend to help the rich, and his overall foreign and security policies are criticized as center-right and unrealistic even by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
On the bread-and-butter issue, the DPJ seems to be eating its own words and losing public support. In his first policy speech, Kan vowed to establish a robust economy, and strong national finance and security systems. But all of them are still weak, save for a strong currency.
The old problems refuse to die, and new ones have cropped up. The tension between Japan and China is rising. A clash between the ruling DPJ and the opposition parties at the upcoming extraordinary Diet session can be foreseen.
To put it simply, Japan faces a political tumult. In fact, before the DPJ came to power, it had formulated a systematic strategy about diplomacy and security. But the US jumped into the scene to prevent Japan from undertaking any groundbreaking cooperation with other East Asian countries. And now in Maehara, the US has a perfect foil to DPJ's rational foreign and security policies.
Kan's policy toward China has raised concerns. But China hopes Japanese inter-party and intra-party rivalry will not prevent the two countries from joining hands to lead Asia's economic resurgence.
Such hopes, however, have met with Japan's open defiance of China's sovereignty to the benefit of the US. The illegal detention of the Chinese fishing boat's captain and crew is one recent example. No wonder, as soon as Maehara was named Japanese foreign minister the US proposed a toast in his name.
The attempt of the US and Japan to co-chisel into the Chinese territory of Diaoyu Islands is obvious. Given the US-Japan designs, it's time China adjusted its foreign policy toward Japan to defend its interests.
But no matter what the US wants, Japan still has to face its people in Okinawa, where an election is scheduled for November. Besides the diplomatic predicament, the ruling DPJ faces another challenge on the economic front from the opposition LDP in the upcoming extraordinary Diet session. Uncertainty also remains on whether the DPJ's supplementary budget plan can garner enough support to be passed by the Diet.
The opposition's game plan is to dissolve the Parliament and hold a general election ahead of schedule, for the LDP is desperate to wrest power from the DPJ. So the DPJ has to bring its divided house in order as well fight the opposition.
No matter what the outcome of the political tussles in Japan is, the right strategic choice for Tokyo would be to seek deeper cooperation with Beijing on the basis of equality and mutual benefit, and a correct understanding of history. Japan should realize that despite being a US ally since World War II, it has a world to gain by cooperating with China.
The author is a researcher in Japan studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.