China expects Japan's possible next prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, to make conciliatory gestures to the communist-led government, with its economic and security tensions with the United States escalating further, diplomatic sources said.
Suga, the front-runner in the race to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, may seize a chance to win the ruling party's presidential election with the backing of its powerful Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, known for his close relations with China.
Moreover, given that the outgoing longest-serving prime minister has made efforts to improve ties with Beijing, China hopes Suga, who has worked as chief Cabinet secretary since Abe returned to power in December 2012, would follow suit, the sources said.
"We don't clearly know what kind of foreign policy Suga will actually want to develop after he becomes prime minister, but he may not be able to run counter to Nikai's intention to get along with China," a Japanese diplomatic source said.
"Suga is likely to adopt a well-balanced diplomatic strategy that would not hurt Japan's relations with its close ally, the United States, and the Chinese Communist Party as Abe has done for the past several years," he said.
Beijing has also voiced willingness to maintain relatively amicable ties with Tokyo, at a time when it has been at odds with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump over many issues including trade, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The Global Times, a tabloid affiliated with the Communist Party, said in an editorial late last month, "China must win the support of countries like Japan" as it has "faced with strategic containment from the U.S."
The newspaper added, "Within the framework of the U.S.-Japan alliance, keeping a strategic balance between China and the U.S. fits Japan's interests. As for China, it should try to create a positive atmosphere for closer ties between the two societies."
The Japanese source said, "This can be translated as a request to Suga from the Communist Party."
The Liberal Democratic Party is scheduled to hold its presidential election next Monday to choose the successor of the 65-year-old Abe, with his longtime right-hand man Suga, 71, seemingly on course to secure about 70 percent of votes from fellow lawmakers.
A few days after Abe announced his resignation due to his health problems, the faction led by the 81-year-old veteran politician Nikai, the LDP's No. 2, expressed support for Suga, paving the way for his victory in the upcoming presidential race.
Nikai won his first seat in the House of Representatives in 1983. He said he learned politics under late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who played an active role in realizing the 1972 normalization of diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Beijing.
In the early 2010s, China and Japan were mired in territorial spats over the Senkaku Islands. The dispute intensified after the Japanese government of then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda brought the Senkakus under state control in September 2012.
The group of uninhabited islets, called Diaoyu in China, is administrated by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.
Noda's controversial move sparked anti-Japanese protests across China. At that time, a large number of Chinese people burned Japanese flags in opposition to Tokyo's nationalization of the islands.
While ties between the two Asian powers deteriorated to the worst level in decades, Abe's government extended an olive branch to China by utilizing Nikai's influence on bilateral relations.
In 2015, Nikai brought a Japanese delegation of around 3,000 people to an event at Beijing's Great Hall of the People that was aimed at promoting friendly Sino-Japanese cooperation, during which President Xi Jinping appeared as a surprise guest.
After taking the post of LDP secretary general in 2016, Nikai attended the first international forum of Beijing's "Belt and Road" cross-border infrastructure initiative in 2017. Afterward, he has often visited China and talked with high-ranking Chinese officials.
When LDP lawmakers urged Abe to withdraw an invitation to Xi to visit Japan as a state guest earlier this year in the wake of the tightening of China's grip on Hong Kong, Nikai instructed them to soften the proposal in consideration of ties with Beijing.
In its report released in July, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, singled out Nikai as the head of the "LDP's pro-China group."
Zhu Jianrong, a professor at Toyo Gakuen University in Tokyo, said in a TV program that China is "concerned" about whether Japan's next prime minister can respond to bilateral matters "with a strong support base" like Abe.
A source familiar with Beijing's thinking, however, said, "The Communist Party apparently welcomes the possibility of Suga becoming Japan's next prime minister. China is confident that it can interact well with a politician who could comply with Nikai's wishes."
"It is also obvious that Suga will inherit the current government's diplomatic policy as he has served as one of the closest aides to Abe, letting China believe that Japan will not take action that would harm bilateral relations," the source added.
In his policies for the LDP election revealed on Saturday, Suga pledged to "build stable ties with neighboring nations such as China," while placing the Japan-U.S. alliance as the foundation of Tokyo's diplomacy and security, which is in line with Abe's stance.
A Japanese government source in Tokyo, meanwhile, said that Suga has decided to appoint Hideo Tarumi, a senior Foreign Ministry official regarded as a "hard-liner" against Beijing, as the new ambassador to China.
Tarumi, who was minister responsible for political affairs at the Japanese Embassy in China before heading back to Tokyo in 2013, has been suspected by Beijing of involvement in spying to collect information about Chinese authorities, the source said.
"By tapping Tarumi as the next ambassador to China, Suga may have sent the United States a message that Japan will keep an appropriate distance from China," the source said.
Tarumi, a "China School" diplomat who underwent Chinese language training with a specific focus on advancing relations with the emerging power, is also considered to be close to Nikai.