Liberal Democratic Party leader Shinzo Abe returned to the prime minister’s office facing a host of diplomatic challenges. But perhaps none is greater than the wariness, and fear, abroad that his rightwing, nationalistic views will strain Tokyo’s relations with Washington and create further tensions with Beijing and Seoul.
Next month, Abe will travel to Washington, his first official trip abroad as prime minister. Abe has emphasized the importance of the Japan-U.S. relationship, especially with respect to the military. But there are a number of specific bilateral issues the U.S. will likely press Japan on.
“In the area of the alliance, certainly 2013 is the year we should break the bottleneck involved with moving Futenma air base to Henoko,” said Kurt Tong, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo during a symposium in Washington last week.
“Other issues we can tackle in the months ahead include information, security, defense industry cooperation, pushing forward with the Guam relocation,” he said.
“On economic affairs, there is a huge opportunity facing Japan if it can find a way to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. But, in the coming year, we also expect coordination on our respective approaches to nuclear power,” he added.
Abe may also find himself pressured on the issue of children born of Japanese and American parents who were abducted to Japan by estranged parents. Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning international child abductions, and specifically named Japan as one of 10 countries to which American children were most frequently abducted.
While former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told U.S. President Barack Obama in May that he would like to continue preparations for the earliest possible conclusion of The Hague Convention, it’s unclear how Abe will deal with U.S. pressure on the issue.
But it is the approach Abe takes toward China that has drawn the most attention in recent days. There is concern worldwide that Tokyo-Beijing relations will continue to worsen, although there have been suggestions that because Abe has the trust of conservatives and nationalists in Japan, he might have the political strength needed to deal with China in a way that smooths relations.
However, Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, said Abe will be constrained in his China policy by other members of the LDP.
“Abe is a serious ideologue. For him to compromise will be difficult because he’s not back in the prime minister’s office due to popular demand. Rightwingers in the LDP feared (LDP Secretary General) Shigeru Ishiba would return to power, so Abe will be loyal to his followers and can’t appear soft on China,” Nakano said right after the election.
And Abe must also mend strained relations with South Korea, which went into a tailspin when current South Korean President Lee Myung Bak landed on Takeshima, called Dokdo in South Korea, in the Sea of Japan in August.
Political observers in Tokyo say now is the best time to repair relations, given the recent change of leadership in both nations. Park Geun Hye, a conservative lawmaker, became the country’s first female president last week.
“It is, without a doubt, a chance to reset (bilateral ties),” said Hajime Izumi, a professor at the University of Shizuoka who is an expert on Korean issues.
He said the past four South Korean administrations mended bilateral ties when they entered office. With the LDP’s move to reconsider its campaign pledge to sponsor an event commemorating Takeshima Day on Feb. 22, others say the issue of the South Korea-administered rocky islets is likely to calm down.
“Japan and South Korea are on the same page, hoping to mend strained ties,” said Masao Okonogi, professor emeritus of Korean politics at Keio University.
However, the long-standing issue of compensation for women forced into sexual slavery for the Imperial Japanese Army during the war is creating concern not only in Seoul but also Washington, which refused to back Abe’s 2007 claim there was no proof Imperial troops forced women and girls into sexual slavery.
Angry protests in South Korea over Abe’s comments and U.S. pressure just weeks before a trip to Washington forced Abe to declare he supported the 1993 Kono Declaration, an official statement of apology to the “comfort women.”
As South Korea’s first female president, Park won’t be able to ignore this issue, Izumi said. She has said she will work for reconciliation, cooperation and peace in Northeast Asia based on correct historical interpretation.
Japan’s new ambassador to China, Masato Kitera, wants Tokyo and Beijing to discuss ways to avoid maritime and airspace accidents around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, as China ever more forcefully asserts its claim to the islets.
“I believe Japan and China both need to have consideration that they must avoid (the occurrence of) unexpected situations (around the islets) at any cost,” Kitera told journalists Tuesday after arriving in Beijing to start his mission in China. He was referring to potential clashes between Japanese and Chinese ships and planes near the islets stemming from miscalculations or misjudgments.
“The Japanese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Foreign Ministry are continuing talks” on issues involving the islands, he said. “I believe (the two sides) should discuss what they will do to avoid unexpected situations.”
The uninhabited islets are claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyu, and by Taiwan, which calls them the Tiaoyutai.
In the wake of the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the five main islets in the Senkaku group from their Japanese owner Sept. 11, China has consistently sent patrol ships around the islets — including into Japanese territorial waters — in an attempt to build a legal basis for making the claim that it wields as much effective control over them as Japan does.
Similarly, China on Dec. 13 sent a marine surveillance plane into Japanese airspace over the islets for the first time, according to Japanese records dating back to 1958, prompting the Air Self-Defense Force to scramble F-15 fighter jets to the area.
“Japan has repeatedly said it will deal with the current situation in a peaceful and calm fashion,” Kitera said. “I believe such thinking is very important.”
Asked if he thinks there is a diplomatic row between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, the ambassador declined comment.
He said it would be inappropriate for him to comment when the foreign ministries of the two countries have been holding talks on the islets at the vice ministerial and director general levels.
Kitera’s predecessor, Uichiro Niwa, the first ambassador to China from the private sector, has said Japan should acknowledge the existence of a diplomatic dispute between the two countries over the islets.