- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 30, 2011

TOKYO — Yoshihiko Noda was elected Tuesday as Japan’s sixth prime minister in five years, facing such a staggering array of domestic problems that the last thing he needs is a sour relationship with China, his country’s biggest trading partner.

Yet Mr. Noda is being viewed warily in China, whose media are playing up his comments supporting a controversial Tokyo shrine honoring World War II dead, including war criminals, and that Beijing’s military buildup is creating regional unease.

“‘Hawk’ to become Japan’s new prime minister,” said the nationalistic Global Times.

Regarded at home as a smart but bland fiscal conservative from humble roots, Mr. Noda replaces the unpopular Naoto Kan, who quit amid widespread criticism over his administration’s handling of the tsunami and nuclear disasters.

A former finance minister, Mr. Noda, 54, will likely focus on those immense challenges, as well as reviving the stagnant economy and reducing Japan’s massive national debt.

But in China, the media are portraying Mr. Noda as a right-wing nationalist and have predicted a rocky period for China-Japan relations.

Even more liberal newspapers highlighted his comments, first made in 2005 and reiterated earlier this month, that convicted Japanese wartime leaders enshrined at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine should no longer be seen as criminals.

Yasukuni visits by postwar politicians have often enraged Japan’s neighbors, who bore the brunt of Japan’s colonial aggression and see the shrine as a glorification of militarism and a symbol of Tokyo’s failure to fully atone for its past imperialism. When former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi used to visit the shrine, it triggered rage and a five-year chill in relations with China and South Korea.

Japan, long used to being the region’s dominant power, has been unsettled by China’s fast-accelerating power over the past decade, even as the countries - now the world’s second- and third-largest economies - built thriving commercial relations.

In this rivalry, Beijing often has appeared to test Tokyo’s mettle, at times taking advantage of political transitions in Japan.

On Monday, after Mr. Noda was elected head of the ruling Democratic Party, setting up Tuesday’s parliamentary vote, China’s official news agency warned him not to ignore Beijing’s “core interests.”

In a harshly worded editorial, Xinhua demanded that Mr. Noda not visit Yasukuni and said Tokyo must recognize China’s claim over Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku, or Diaoyutai in Chinese.

Ties between the countries deteriorated sharply last year when a Chinese fishing boat captain was arrested - and later released - by Japan after his boat collided with a Japanese patrol boat in disputed waters near the islands.

The territorial dispute could flare again. Last week, two Chinese fisheries patrol boats sailed into contested waters near the islands, drawing a rebuke from Tokyo.