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Riding out the shifting political winds of Japan

by Frank Ching

The Liberal Democratic-New Komeito victory in Japan’s Upper House election signals the return of political stability to Japan for the first time in seven years. Since 2006, when Junichiro Koizumi stepped down after five years as prime minister, Japan has had a series of stop-gap governments.

Paradoxically Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the person who initiated the revolving-door process when he resigned in September 2007. He then had five successors in as many years until Abe regained office last December.

Ironically Abe may end up in a situation similar to that of Koizumi — popular at home but unwelcome in China.

During the Koizumi years, there were no high-level exchanges because the prime minister kept visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where the memories of Japan’s war dead, including Class A war criminals, are enshrined. After Abe assumed office in 2006, he stopped visits to the shrine and no prime minister has visited since then. But even without visits to the shrine, Abe’s relationship with China is likely to be strained because of the territorial dispute over the Senkaku, or Diaoyu, islands.

Thus, Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University, said, “As long as Prime Minister Abe is in power, it would be difficult for the two countries to find ways in the near future to improve diplomatic ties.”

Actually it is doubtful that any Japanese leader would be acceptable to China, which insists that Tokyo should allow Chinese vessels to deploy in what Japan considers its sovereign territory. A battle over natural resources undergirds the dispute. In 2008 the two countries agreed to joint development in overlapping economic zones, but talks were suspended in 2010. Since then, Japan has protested against Chinese moves to unilaterally develop gas fields. The two countries are continuing discussions, along with South Korea, on setting up a trilateral free trade area in Northeast Asia. The next round is scheduled for Shanghai next week.

Hopefully Japan and China will realize that economic cooperation is a better option than military confrontation.

However, even before the election, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told The Wall Street Journal that Tokyo was responding to the changing security situation in East Asia, including giving its Self-Defense Forces the ability to launch preemptive strikes against aggressors and creating a military unit devoted to protecting the nation’s islands and coastlines.

Abe has tightened Japan’s alliance with the United States, including the holding last month of large-scale military exercises.

China, too, has conducted joint exercises with Russia, with Chinese naval vessels for the first time passing between Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island, and Sakhalin in Russia in a move seen as militarily provocative.

Abe now does not have to face an election for three years and is in a position to carry out his legislative program and policies. The top priority is the stagnant economy. Abenomics — as the economic reforms launched by the new leader is dubbed — has had visible results, with the stock market rising 40 percent in the first four months of this year, but the question is whether Abe will be able to hold his party and its partner, the New Komeito, together when it tries to move ahead on reforms, including deregulation. If the economy doesn’t revive, Japan has little hope of being able to compete with — never mind confront — a rapidly growing Chinese navy.

Abe must also restrain his nationalistic proclivities and not make statements denying responsibility for sex slaves, the Nanjing massacre or the invasion of Japan’s neighbors during World War II. Such talk would offend Americans and other friends of Japan.

Meanwhile, Abe is seeking whatever allies he can muster. The Philippines announced Monday that the Japanese leader will be visiting to discuss bilateral cooperation and regional issues with President Benigno Aquino.

President Xi Jinping is promoting a new model of relations among major powers, such as that between China and the U.S. and the European Union. So far, he does not seem to have made a similar offer to Japan which, after all, is the world’s third largest economy.

China has held summits with its key neighbors, including the U.S., South Korea and Russia. It is depicting Japan as isolated because its ally, the U.S., has held a strategic dialogue with China.

If China is serious about promoting major-power relations, it makes no sense to keep Japan out. Instead of isolating Japan, it would be much more constructive if China should offer to include Japan in the web of great power relationships that it is creating.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. E-mail: Frank.ching@gmail.com Twitter: @FrankChing1

  • Masa Chekov

    I am surprised – I find myself caring even less about China’s opinion of Japanese elections and politics than I do America’s.

    We’ve got way too many, much more important domestic issues to fret about than wondering if China and the US hit the “ii ne” button on Japan’s Facebook.