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Abe seen pursuing strong yet pragmatic foreign policy

by Siti Rahil

Kyodo

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to adopt a more assertive foreign policy than his predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda, but he is likely to remain pragmatic despite fears in Asia that his more bellicose views could escalate tensions with China and destabilize the region, a senior Singaporean academic said.

“What might concern countries in the region is Abe adopting a more hawkish approach that would lead to instability in Northeast Asia, which would directly impact Southeast Asia — maybe by pushing China a little bit too much or pursuing a policy that’s going to antagonize” its rulers, said Bhubhindar Singh, assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, a think tank in Singapore.

“But I don’t think that will happen,” Singh, an expert on international relations in Northeast Asia and on Japan’s security policy, said in a recent interview.

“I think (Abe’s) going to adopt a pragmatic approach, at the same time showing a stronger Japan and defending Japan’s national interests (more).”

Singh said he believes Abe will pursue a “middle-of-the-road” foreign policy that recognizes China’s intrinsic importance to Japan, as well as the need for regional stability. He further said he is sanguine that the new crop of leaders in Northeast Asia, notably incoming Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President-elect Park Geun Hye, are all “quite pragmatic.”

“There will always be this kind of a minicrisis (like the ongoing Senkakus row) and there will always be problems, but I think they will not let these problems harm the stability of the region because they all need stability to ensure that they grow economically, and to support their interdependence,” Singh argued.

He also said Southeast Asian countries would welcome Japan playing a more active regional role.

“For a long time, Southeast Asia was complaining that Japan in fact may be losing its relative influence to China and even South Korea, and so Japan’s increased emphasis on this region will be embraced and welcomed by all (its) countries,” he said, though he noted Japan must also “ensure that it grows economically” to maintain its regional clout.

Singh said the Japanese people voted for stability in returning the conservative Liberal Democratic Party to power in the Dec. 16 Lower House election.

“What people in Japan voted for was stability, stability defined in terms of what they know, and what they know is the LDP,” he said, referring to the party’s almost uninterrupted postwar rule until its defeat in the 2009 election.

He pointed out that, among other factors, the ousted Democratic Party of Japan administration’s foreign policy was perceived by many as weak.

But Singh said that, personally, he thinks the DPJ did “reasonably well” in the area of diplomacy during its three years in office, given the two major crises it faced: then-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s plan last year to purchase three of the Senkaku islets whose sovereignty is vigorously disputed by China, and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s unprecedented visit in August to the Takeshima Islands, which are administered by Seoul but claimed by Japan.

“I think Noda and his team showed extremely good sense on how to react to these crises,” he said, even though by stepping in to effectively nationalize the Senkaku chain in mid-September, the DPJ administration sent ties with Beijing plunging to their lowest ebb in years and sparked violent anti-Japan protests throughout mainland China.

On Japan’s relations with the United States, Singh predicted Abe will continue to support Washington’s strategic “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region but will probably support Washington’s new policy by demonstrating willingness to play a more active role in the bilateral security alliance.