HONG KONG – Shinzo Abe, widely viewed as a rightwing nationalist, assumes office Wednesday as prime minister of Japan, the seventh time the country’s leadership has changed hands in six years and his second turn at the helm since 2007.
The election manifesto of Abe’s party, the Liberal Democrats, contained such proposals as changing the Constitution so that Japan can exercise its right to collective self-defense. It also took strong positions on territorial disputes with the country’s neighbors.
Abe himself took a hawkish stance, insisting for example that the Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China, are “Japan’s inherent territory.” However, indications are that his actions as prime minister won’t reflect campaign rhetoric.
For one thing, he is dispatching a special envoy to China, Masahiko Komura, the party’s vice president, to improve relations on that front. Special envoys are also being sent to South Korea and Russia, other countries with which Japan has territorial disputes. Moreover, at a press conference last Saturday, Abe said he wanted to “make efforts to return to the starting point of developing the mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests” with China. “The Japan-China relationship,” he said, “is one of extremely important bilateral ties.”
While he had proposed posting officials on the disputed islands — known to China as the Diaoyus — to strengthen Japan’s control over them, since the election he has only said that he would think about the possibility.
As for relations with South Korea, Abe is canceling a “Takeshima Day” ceremony originally scheduled for Feb. 22, which was meant to assert Japan’s claims to a group of islands held by Seoul also known as Dokdo.
Abe has also been in contact with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has disclosed that the new Japanese leader wishes to sign a peace treaty.
As for the United States, Abe has spoken by telephone with President Barack Obama and announced that he would visit Washington next month on his first official overseas trip. He has also said he would try to relocate the U.S. military base Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, in line with an earlier agreement with the United States.
Abe knows that the voters in this election were punishing the Democratic Party of Japan for failing to deliver after three years in power rather than supporting his party. Voters, Abe said on television after the election, had simply moved to “end three years of chaos.”
While the Democrats have lost the premiership, they still control the Upper House. If Abe is to consolidate the Liberal Democrats’ position, he needs a victory in the House of Councilors election next summer. If he fails to do that, he may be faced with another truncated term as prime minister.
His first priority, therefore, is to coax Japan back onto the path of economic growth. And he has already made it clear that he hopes to jump-start the economy with massive spending on public works.
So, despite his hawkish campaign rhetoric, Abe will be pragmatic when it comes to dealing with foreign issues.
However, things are not entirely within his control. For one thing, if China continues to aggressively press its demands on the islands issue, Abe will have little choice but to stand his ground.
But if China is flexible, Abe can be flexible as well. China has a choice. It can continue to press Tokyo — as it did the government of Yoshihiko Noda, which nationalized the islands — or it can make use of the change in government in Japan to change its approach.
After all, Abe as prime minister in 2006-2007 had dramatically improved relations between the two countries, undertaking an ice-breaking trip to Beijing, which was followed by a successful visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Japan.
China can therefore welcome Abe as an “old friend” whose father, Shintaro Abe, was also a friend of China’s.
As a recent commentary in the online edition of the official People’s Daily recalled, Shintaro Abe, when serving as foreign minister, “had positively promoted Japan’s government loans to China and showed his respect for Deng Xiaoping.”
Generally speaking, the article observed, Japanese politicians think “A son should continue his father’s ambition.” Therefore, it said, “we do not believe that Shinzo Abe will be ‘unfilial’ after returning to power.”
But, of course, aside from filial piety, patriotism is also a virtue. Abe as prime minister cannot just be “filial”; he must act in the interest of his country.
How Abe behaves will to a large extent depend on China’s actions. The ball is very much in China’s court.
Frank Ching is a political commentator and journalist based in Hong Kong.