LONDON – Despite the election rhetoric, the foreign policy of a government led by the Liberal Democratic Party is unlikely to shift noticeably to the right, according to British observers of Japan’s political scene.
Experts believe that LDP chief Shinzo Abe, whose party won Sunday’s election by a landslide, will take a measured approach with China despite international media reports suggesting Japan will “lurch to the right.”
“When Abe became prime minister in 2006, there were similar fears about him . . . but his first overseas visit was to China and relations improved,” Hugo Dobson, a professor of Japan’s international relations at Sheffield University, said. “I’m relatively calm about what Abe will do. I think he will tone things down (with China) and get on with the business of government. I don’t think there will be rising nationalistic ambitions.”
The academic believes Abe will focus mainly on repairing the ailing economy, and he does not think there is public appetite for more confrontation with China.
During the election, Abe hinted his party would take a hardline stance against China over the territorial dispute involving a group of Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyu in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan.
It has also been suggested Abe might try to revise the war-renouncing Constitution to make it easier for Japan to participate in overseas military operations with its allies. But Dobson thinks Abe and the LDP will be unable to secure enough public support for changing the Constitution and instead continue to enter into collective self-defense arrangements with its allies as and when necessary.
The professor thinks relations with the United States will remain “predominantly the same.” However, he thinks Japan’s commitment to the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks may be in doubt under Abe’s stewardship.
Given the tendency of Japanese parties to ditch leaders who poll below 25 percent, Dobson also doubts whether Abe will survive in office for more than a year.
Sarah Hyde, a Japanese politics expert from Kent University, said Abe should make his first overseas visit to South Korea and China to improve ties, rather than to Washington as Abe has indicated.
Hyde believes dramatic changes to Japan’s foreign policy are unlikely, given the LDP’s traditionally slow policymaking process. However, she thinks that Abe, in his second stint as prime minister, might be a more dynamic leader, having been “incapable and anodyne” in his initial term of just one year beginning in September 2006.
Christopher Hood, from Cardiff University, said China’s attempts to keep the regional disputes in the public eye may have pushed Japan more to the right.
But he thinks it remains to be seen whether Abe’s rhetoric on the issue will be matched by an equally robust approach to China once he is elected prime minister next week.