Faced with diplomatic and defense-related challenges that could decide the fate of the Abe administration, the reshuffled Cabinet must hit the ground running after its launch Wednesday.
The first report from North Korea’s special investigation committee on missing Japanese, including those abducted by North Korean spies in the 1970s and 80s, is due later this month.
Japanese officials are hoping the North finally returns some of the abductees to improve relations. Pyongyang’s ties with China, its biggest ally, have been strained in recent months, and this might be the cause of the diplomatic overture to Tokyo, they say.
But given its record of deception, betrayal and abrupt turnarounds, many remain skeptical about Pyongyang’s intentions. If the North seeks economic assistance in return for only a few abductees, Abe’s team will have to decide whether such a deal will be worth the political cost.
If the negotiations fail, Abe, who has repeatedly vowed to rescue “all of the abductees” from the North, could see his popularity plummet.
In the meantime, the Cabinet reshuffle has not affected Fumio Kishida, who was reappointed foreign minister. Always in lock step with Abe, Kishida is often criticized for lacking initiative. He is expected to serve as one of Abe’s coordinators and messengers in the diplomatic negotiations with Pyongyang.
Tokyo faces another big challenge in the run-up to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference summit in November in Beijing, where he hopes to arrange a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China’s leaders have refused to meet Abe one-on-one since his inauguration in December 2012 as a way to express their displeasure with the territorial dispute involving the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and Abe’s visit to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine.
In the meantime, Defense Minister Akinori Eto will have to hammer out Japan’s first new defense guidelines with the United States in 17 years, to deal with contingencies in areas around Japan.
The tentative deadline for the revision is now the end of the year.
Among Japan’s top priorities is setting the boundaries for using the U.N. right to collective self-defense in joint Japan-U.S. military operations, based on the Abe government’s new interpretation of the pacifist, war-renouncing Constitution.
“The top priority lies in securing the safety of the Far East region,” Eto said after meeting with Abe. Eto said Abe told him to work hard to put together bills related to collective self-defense to submit to the Diet next year.
Abe’s decision to change the government’s long-standing interpretation of the Constitution rather than formally amend it had big repercussions at home and abroad and caused the Cabinet’s approval rating to dive.
Eto can expect tough negotiating sessions in Diet when he tries to defend it.
Information from Kyodo added