Japan's likely next PM has ability to charm and revile

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2008, 12:00am

Should political veteran Taro Aso become Japan's next prime minister as expected, China and other regional powers will be dealing with a known quantity. But any sense of comfort is likely to end there.

As former foreign minister to both the charismatic prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and his successor, Shinzo Abe, Mr Aso displayed an ability to both charm and revile - a reflection of a complex political pedigree that encompasses the harder edge of the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party - as well as a widely touted love of comic books.

His at times outspoken nationalism has jarred with his role as Japan's leading diplomat. Yet that has not stopped him being on his best behaviour for months at a stretch to assist the thawing of Sino-Japanese ties after the frigid Koizumi years.

The trend accelerated under the pro-engagement Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who announced his resignation on Monday after less than a year in office. The restoration of the China relationship, marked by the visit to Tokyo of President Hu Jintao and a landmark declaration, was one of his few successes in a tenure marked by unprecedented political struggle and recession.

The countries struck a deal in July to jointly develop East China Sea gas fields, brushing aside territorial disputes. Yesterday, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing praised Mr Fukuda for his efforts to improve ties.

'China and Japan's relations have witnessed a sound momentum of development through the joint efforts of the two governments and people from different circles. China and Japan's strategic ties have intensified,' ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. 'Mr Fukuda has made great contributions to this and we think highly of him.'

Ms Jiang said China would continue to develop Sino-Japanese relations with Mr Fukuda's successor.

'Maintaining a long-term, healthy and stable Sino-Japanese relationship serves the fundamental interests of the two countries' people. We are willing to continue working with Japan to achieve this goal.'

There is little doubt, however, that Mr Aso is a more prickly character for China, now Japan's largest trading partner. Historical issues and territorial demarcation talks could prove tougher to solve as he seeks to assert a long-held vision for a stronger Japan.

His track record of speaking his mind, particularly over visits to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine and historical differences, have sparked controversy.

His family's company, Aso Mining, used Korean slaves during Japan's wartime occupation of the Korean Peninsula.

He once said China's complaints merely inspired him: 'It is just like when you're told, 'Don't smoke cigarettes', it actually makes you want to smoke. It is best to keep quiet.'

While he has been putting on his best side as the LDP's secretary general, his rougher edges must not be forgotten as they could impact on the months ahead, analysts say.

In Beijing, Foreign Affairs University Professor Niu Zhongjun said further breakthroughs in bilateral ties were unlikely to come soon.

'The Sino-Japanese relationship under the new Japanese leadership will not get worse. It's impossible to go back to the days of Koizumi, but it won't get any better,' he said.

The territorial disputes, for example, could be put back on the table because whoever takes over from Mr Fukuda will likely be tougher on sensitive issues, Gao Hong , director of Japanese politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Japanese Studies, said.

If he takes the job, Mr Aso will be eager to create an early bounce in the polls, insiders say, allowing him to call an early general election, which must be held by next September.

There is little doubt Mr Aso has the ambition to seek the job. But he faces competition, particularly from the most prominent woman in Japanese politics, former defence secretary Yuriko Koike, a figure with close ties to Mr Koizumi.