TOKYO – TOKYO (AP) — A security expert and China hawk, Japan's new foreign minister has already taken a tough stance toward Beijing amid escalating diplomatic tension over a territorial dispute between the two Asian giants.
Seiji Maehara, the former transport minister and most prominent symbol of change in Prime Minister Naoto Kan's new Cabinet announced Friday, will also become the point man for Japan on the nettlesome issue of relocating a controversial U.S. Marine base on Okinawa.
The Cabinet reshuffle comes after Kan, a fiscal disciplinarian who took office just three months ago, won a divisive Democratic Party leadership election Tuesday and promised to use his victory to push ahead with efforts to cap spending, create jobs and build party unity.
Kan retained the ministers for the key Cabinet posts of finance and defense, but changed 10 of the 17 positions.
Maehara takes over the Foreign Ministry at a delicate time in relations between China and Japan, the world's No. 2 and No. 3 economies. Tensions have flared over the collision last week of a Chinese fishing boat and two Japanese patrol vessels near uninhabited, disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Beijing has harshly criticized Japan's arrest of the fishing captain, saying it could hurt bilateral ties, while Japan has defended its right to hold him custody while they decide whether to charge him with obstructing the coast guard's public duties.
Maehara, a telegenic 48-year-old, has taken a strong stance toward China on the matter, saying China's claims to the islands are illegitimate.
"Territorial problems do not exist in the East China Sea," he told a news conference Tuesday, when he was still transport minister. "We will simply take a rigid and resolute response in order to firmly defend Japan's sovereignty, while we take strict measures based on our domestic law. It's as simple as that."
On Thursday, Maehara flew to southern Ishigaki island, where the arrested Chinese captain is being detained. He inspected patrol boats and visited coast guard personnel to praise their efforts to seize the captain.
Maehara has been known to warn against China's increased military presence in the region, saying in a 2005 speech to fellow members of parliament that "We can control (China's) expansion in its force only if we act firmly and resolutely."
He has called China "a threat," saying that the country has developed missiles capable of reaching Japan and conducted maritime surveys around the Japanese waters. He has also said that deciding whether to establish friendly relations with China would be "Japan's major diplomatic test," highlighting the countries' dispute over undersea gas fields in the East China Sea.
Angered over the collision, China has said it is postponing talks with Tokyo on developing those undersea resources.
"Maehara is probably temperamentally or ideologically not inclined to succumb to Chinese pressure," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. "He'll probably stick to his guns, though I am sure he will try not to further escalate the tension."
An expert in defense and diplomatic issues, Maehara has served on parliamentary and party panels on the U.S-Japan security alliance and other military and strategic issues. He replaces Katsuya Okada, who was moved to the No. 2 post in the ruling party.
Maehara made a splash soon after becoming transport minister last fall by suspending a massive dam project that the Democrats considered a prime example of wasteful public works spending under the long-ruling conservatives whom they overthrew last year.
Despite strong local pleas to keep the project going, Maehara stood firm.
On the spat with China, Kan said Tokyo will take steps firmly under Japanese law and that both countries should make an effort to develop "strategic and mutually beneficial relations."
Associated Press Writer Malcolm Foster contributed to this report.