NEW YORK – Delivering his message to a global audience at the United Nations last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe outlined his vision of Japan as a pacifist nation willing to engage more actively in international security.
Abe told the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York that Japan will become a “proactive contributor to peace” and increase its involvement in U.N. collective security, apparently setting the stage for lifting the nation’s self-imposed ban on collective self-defense.
“I realized anew how much the world is expecting of Japan, a country that proactively contributes to global peace and prosperity,” Abe said at a news conference Friday, summing up his trip.
Behind Abe’s repeated use in recent weeks of the buzzword “proactive pacifism” are concerns at home, abroad and even within his ruling coalition about his tilt to the far right.
He countered by trying to carefully project a softer image, stressing the rights of women at the U.N. gathering.
Abe’s goal of giving the Self-Defense Forces the leeway to engage in collective self-defense, or defending an ally under armed attack, has already raised China’s hackles at a time when Tokyo and Beijing are at odds over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. China claims the uninhabited Japan-held islets as Diaoyu, and Taiwan claims them as Tiaoyutai.
At the previous General Assembly in September 2012, Japan’s effective nationalization of the Senkakus earlier that month led to a rare verbal outburst in which Chinese envoys accused it of “stealing” the islets. Chinese vessels have made dozens of intrusions into Japanese waters around the chain ever since.
With China’s increased maritime assertiveness in mind, Abe is looking to beef up Japan’s defensive capabilities by training the SDF to defend remote islands such as the Senkakus.
“Call me, if you want, a right-wing militarist,” Abe said in a speech at an event hosted by the Hudson Institute in New York, stressing Japan’s increased defense spending is not as big as that of “an immediate neighbor” — in other words, China.
Abe also made it clear at the General Assembly that Japan cannot tolerate maritime order being shaken up through the use of force because its national interests are “firmly connected to the stability of seas that are open.”
The prime minister meanwhile held bilateral talks with the leaders of France, Pakistan and Iran, but not with U.S. President Barack Obama. No face-to-face summits have been arranged between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping or South Korean President Park Geun-hye since he took office last December.
Since projecting too hawkish an image could hinder his diplomacy, the test for Abe from this point will be in striking the right balance.
Relations with South Korea remain chilly due to a Sea of Japan isle dispute and divergent perceptions of history. Despite being important partners, talks between Tokyo and Seoul have remained at the ministerial level.
Abe’s focus at the General Assembly on women’s rights and “Womenomics” — the active participation of women in fostering economic growth — comes as his administration tries to fend off calls to compensate South Korean and other Asian women forced into sexual servitude in Imperial Japanese military brothers before and during the war.
“We agreed to keep communications at various levels,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said in New York after meeting South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se. Kishida said they discussed the “comfort women” issue, as Japan euphemistically refers to it, and the South Korean-controlled islets they’re feuding over, known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in the South.
But summit talks between Abe and Park now appear out of the question at the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Indonesia or the East Asia Summit in Brunei, which the two leaders will attend in October.
“The important thing is to exchange views on various matters frequently. We may not have an outcome each and every time,” a government official said, stressing the importance of continuing dialogue.
Abe told the General Assembly in New York that his mission is to first rebuild the Japanese economy and then to “make Japan a dependable ‘force’ that works for good in the world.”
“The future course of Japan’s diplomacy will begin here, by sparing no pains to get actively engaged in historic challenges facing today’s world,” Abe said.
After a five-day visit to North America, Abe now has to conclude whether to hike the consumption tax next April, a decision that could work negatively for Japan’s deflation-mired economy and cut his “Abenomics” policy package off at the knees. Abenomics entails aggressive monetary easing and massive fiscal spending to conquer nearly two decades of deflation.