TOKYO -- Mahathir Mohamad's return to power in Malaysia has come as a welcome surprise for the Japanese government when China's increasing clout in Southeast Asia is eclipsing the influence of Japan and Western nations.
Although diplomats are hesitant to declare it officially, Tokyo is secretly hoping that Mahathir will support its efforts to promote the rule of law and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where China and some ASEAN members are locked in territorial disputes.
On May 11, after the Malaysian opposition coalition led by the 92-year-old former prime minister scored an unexpected victory in the country's parliamentary elections, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was quick to send a signal of goodwill.
"We hope to promote cooperation with the new [Malaysian] prime minister in various areas, including responses to the many challenges facing the region," Suga said at a news conference.
Mahathir's stunning comeback as Malaysia's leader is the first good news in some time for Tokyo's Southeast Asian diplomacy. The prime minister is known for his staunch pro-Japanese stance, symbolized by his "Look East" policy, which calls for emulating Japan's economic model.
More to the point, Mahathir's new government has pledged to steer the nation away from closer ties with China that his predecessor, Najib Razak, advocated.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was originally launched as a regional bulwark against communism during the Cold War era. Japan has been providing huge amounts of aid to ASEAN members to bolster their economies in order to spread economic liberalism.
Unlike their feelings toward China and South Korea, Southeast Asian nations have generally viewed Japan favorably, making the region a diplomatic oasis for Tokyo.
But in recent years, Tokyo has suffered a series of foreign policy setbacks in the region as an increasing number of ASEAN members began gravitating toward China's enormous and fast growing economy.
Indicative of the trend was the chairman's statement during last year's ASEAN summit held in Manila. Tokyo tried to persuade ASEAN members to mention "concerns" over China's military activities in the South China Sea in the statement as they had done in past years, but the bloc failed to do so out of fear of provoking Beijing.
Behind the changing diplomatic equation are China's surging power and the declining influence of the U.S., as well as changes in ASEAN's political landscape.
When former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died three years ago, a senior official at Japan's foreign ministry lamented that the era of Lee and Mahathir was "gone for good." The two leaders had adopted a well-balanced, tough-minded approach, finessing relations with China without trying to curry favor with their powerful neighbor.
But many current ASEAN leaders lack similar political cachet. Instead, they are enamored of China's economic might and charmed by Beijing's leniency toward their autocratic ways.
Experts believe the return of Mahathir, whose aura still lingers, can change the dynamic of the ASEAN summit, the members of which have become too chummy with China. Despite his advanced age, the indomitable politician maintains the political charisma that kept him in power for more than two decades from 1981.
Mahathir's performance will also have significant implications for Japan's security policy. Japan and ASEAN have a shared interest in countering China's naval expansion in the South China Sea, a key transport artery for oil tankers from the Middle East and other vessels carrying goods to and from Japan.
But change will not occur if Mahathir is unable to manage his own government, and he will lose leverage if he fails to deal with the challenges confronting the nation, from rampant corruption and slowing economic growth to racial tensions.
A Japanese foreign ministry official in charge of Asia policy cautions against excessive expectations for Mahathir's leadership, saying "political and diplomatic landscapes have changed radically since his previous government."
Japanese foreign policy officials are preparing to take advantage of a diplomatic opportunity that may come in June, when Mahathir is scheduled to visit Japan for a forum.
"We really hope he will come as planned," said a senior foreign ministry official. "We are keen to see him have talks with Prime Minister [Shinzo Abe]," he added.
But Mahathir's advanced age could make it difficult for him to travel to Japan while handling a long list of duties as Malaysia's new leader, a development that would surely disappoint Japanese policymakers.