Abe: China stirs up rows to build support at home

The Washington Post

China has a “deeply ingrained” need to spar with Japan and other Asian neighbors over territory, because the ruling Communist Party uses the disputes to maintain strong domestic support, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in an interview.

Clashes with neighbors, notably Japan, play to popular opinion, Abe said, given a Chinese education system that emphasizes patriotism and “anti-Japanese sentiment.”

Abe’s theory on the entrenched motivation behind China’s recent naval aggression helps explain why he has spent more effort trying to counter the Chinese than make peace with them: He thinks the fierce dispute with China over the Japan-held Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea isn’t going away anytime soon.

Abe spoke about China in what aides described as unusually detailed terms, laying out challenges that Chinese leaders might face if other parts of Asia, unnerved by Beijing’s maritime expansionism, decide to reduce trade and other economic ties. China’s government would be hurt by such moves, Abe said, because without economic growth, it “will not be able to control the 1.3 billion people . . . under the one-party rule.”

Abe also laid out his plans for deterrence, which include boosting military spending and strengthening ties with Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and other nations that share concerns about Beijing. Abe, who is to meet Friday with President Barack Obama in Washington, said the U.S. presence in Asia is “critical” to deter China from taking territory controlled by other countries.

His comments came in an interview Saturday with The Washington Post, which The Post was granted on condition that the article not be published until Abe was departing for Washington.

In recent years, China has played an increasingly boisterous role in the South China Sea, claiming a massive sphere of territory that includes some of the world’s most trafficked shipping lanes and overlaps with claims of a half-dozen other countries. For Japan, the dispute with China focuses on the remote Senkakus in the East China Sea, islets China calls the Diaoyu. Tensions heated up in September after the central government purchased three of the islets after previously renting them, thereby nationalizing the whole chain.

“What is important first and foremost,” Abe said, “is to make (China) realize that they would not be able to change the rules or take away somebody’s territorial water or territory by coercion or intimidation.”

Abe’s assessment of China sounds like a version of the one that experts in Beijing give of Japan, which they say has shifted to the right on foreign policy and security issues in a bid to recover clout and pride lost during two decades of economic stagnation. Abe’s criticism of Chinese education is also notable because, during his first stint as prime minister six years ago, he revised a law to encourage a more patriotic curriculum in Japan’s classrooms.

Abe became prime minister for a second time in December, after making a string of far-right campaign pledges to revise the pacifist Constitution and loosen certain restrictions on the armed forces. He also promised to be tougher on China than the previous government of the moderate Democratic Party of Japan.

But two months into his term, Abe looks more like a pragmatist than a strident nationalist, focusing mainly on a new, and so far successful, economic policy to weaken the yen and spur inflation. His latest popularity rating is 71 percent, according to the Yomiuri newspaper, a stunning mark in a nation that has cycled through six consecutive one-year leaders.

“I have succeeded already in changing the general mood and atmosphere that was prevalent in Japan,” Abe said.

The question is whether Abe will change course and begin pushing for his controversial rightwing hobbyhorses after the July Upper House election, which could help his Liberal Democratic Party build an overwhelming majority and leave Abe emboldened.

One concern is that Abe may try to water down earlier government apologies for atrocities committed by Japan during the war. Abe, in the interview, said he would someday like to make a “future-oriented” statement aimed at Japan’s neighbors, but he did not elaborate on what its message would be.

Beijing has responded to Japan’s nationalization of the Senkakus by sending surveillance ships and aircraft into Japanese territory, drawing Japan into a risky showdown in which the neighbors chase each other around the waters and airspace around the uninhabited rocky outcroppings. Any armed conflict could draw in the U.S., which is treaty-bound to protect Japan.

While historical animosities are at the root of Japan’s territorial dispute with China, the maritime conflict is relatively new. During the interview, Abe portrayed China’s actions as part of a 35-year shift that began when the Communist Party opened its once-controlled economy. China’s government has since had to abandon the hope of nationwide economic equality — “one of its pillars of legitimacy,” Abe said — forcing it to create “some different pillars,” including rapid economic growth and patriotism.

“What is unfortunate, however,” Abe added, “is that in the case of China, teaching patriotism (is equivalent to) teaching anti-Japanese sentiment. In other words, their education policy of teaching patriotism has become even more pronounced as they started the reform and opening policy.”

Abe said China’s tactics at sea are yielding “strong support” domestically. Those tactics, some analysts say, also could prove financially lucrative if China gains control of shipping lanes and access to rich fishing territory, and extracts hydrocarbon reserves.

But Abe warned China’s sparring with its neighbors could backfire, potentially undermining trade partnerships and causing skittishness among foreign investors.

“Such behavior is going to have an effect on their economic activity at the end of the day,” he said, “because it will lead to losing the confidence of the international community, which will result in less investments in China. I believe it is fully possible to have China (change its) policy once they gain that recognition.”

  • Guest

    The most curious thing, so far, is why Abe has Taro Aso as his chief advisor.

    It makes me wonder if we are just in for another one-year sled ride with the privileged class “good ol’e boys club”, and if we really will ever start to solve some of our problems…

  • This kind of public comment will infuriate China and the Chinese in general. Looks like Abe is making lots more Japanese haters worldwide. It is not helping Japan in the long term.

  • At long last, a PM with the courage to say so.

  • Aholl Urang

    What reasons China does what it does, we always put our mouths in the wrong place and loose public opinions of the world.

  • Francis Liew

    Shinzo Abe did had an understanding of the situation in China. Unfortunately his reaction is not courageous. Perhaps it is too much for him to behave like Charles De Gaulle, make a complete break with the past and starts afresh in a new direction. His US orientate policy solves no long term Japanese problems and is only beneficial to US. In 10 years from now, he and his kind would still have the same current problems with China with the Chinese even more intransigent. What then? By that time the Chinese would be far and away the largest economy in the world. The US resolve in helping Japan tide over its China problem would have weakened considerably. How is that beneficial to Japan? Perhaps Japanese think tanks should help Shinzo Abe to draft a more realistic national policy instead of a patched up solution to Sino Japanese relationship.

  • Mark Garrett

    Pot, meet kettle.

  • how about the eduction of Japan, for not telling its people what had happened in the Sino-Japanese war and the world war 2?

  • disqus_bugafmk1Tf

    See Brian Victoria’s “Raising the Senkakus Stakes” in today’s Japan Times for a different view of these issues. Do possibly China, Japan and the US all bear some degree of responsibility?

  • beancube2010

    Japanese government is trying to make their own people to forget the serious problems of the fall out of nuclear power plant. Actually, we all know their war to China would be very very very expensive to us. Japanese people in China and Chinese people in Japan know their economic development are selfishly disrupted by these greedy right wing politicians who have no real future because we know their election turnout was so low despite their media faking it internationally.