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Abe’s snap election puts Beijing on edge, although some believe it may empower him to ease tension

by Takuya Karube

Kyodo

China is wary that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to call a snap election may lead to policy changes that would affect bilateral relations, amid tentative signs of thawing ties between the two countries.

Abe’s political gamble to dissolve the Lower House, with two more years remaining in the chamber’s term, has been widely regarded as a surprise in China.

His announcement Tuesday on the dissolution of the House of Representatives came about a week after he held talks for the first time with Chinese President Xi Jinping following more than two years of heightened tension over the ownership of the Senkaku Islands and wartime historical issues.

Chinese policymakers and experts are puzzled by Abe’s argument that a new public mandate is needed for his economic reform aims and for delaying a consumption tax hike. Whatever the real motive for the vote, China’s primary focus is whether the Japanese government will shift directions on foreign policy after the Dec. 14 election.

Chinese observers expect Abe’s government, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, to remain in power. Yet they are divided on the poll’s implications. Some see the election as a gambit to prolong his run, and believe the longer he is in power the more difficult it will be to mend their strained bilateral ties. Others are hopeful the situation will take a turn for the better.

“There is a possibility for Mr. Abe to steer his policies (toward China) in a positive direction because he no longer needs to worry about the next general election for some time,” said Liu Jiangyong, vice dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University.

If the LDP secures a comfortable win over opposition parties and Abe manages to convince his conservative political base afterward, he may have more room to maneuver on foreign affairs, Liu said.

Abe was elected prime minister for the second time in December 2012, following the LDP’s sweeping victory for the 480-member Lower House.

The LDP has 295 seats in the chamber and the number increases to 326 if combined with those of the ruling party’s coalition partner, Komeito.

Japan’s frail and weakening economy could cause the LDP to lose some seats, as the country has officially slipped back into recession. But if the party’s electoral losses are minimal and Abe does not face a challenge in the party’s presidential election next September, the dissolution of the Lower House could theoretically enable him to stay in power until 2018.

Under such circumstances, and given that Abe and Xi held their first talks on Nov. 10, China’s tightly controlled mainstream media has been reporting on Japan’s political developments in a relatively quiet manner, without criticizing Abe.

In general, political stability will help to solve difficult diplomatic problems. But Chinese analysts say that may not necessarily be the case when it comes to Beijing’s relations with Tokyo.

When Junichiro Koizumi served as prime minister for more than five years through September 2006, becoming Japan’s third-longest serving leader since World War II, he presided over a particularly difficult period in Sino-Japanese relations. The source of the confrontation was Koizumi’s annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, seen by critics as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.

Abe, Koizumi’s successor, made a trip to Beijing fewer than two weeks into his first tenure as prime minster and agreed with Chinese leaders to develop a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests. But Abe himself added to the chill in bilateral ties over the Senkakus — claimed as Diaoyu by China and Tiaoyutai by Taiwan — by making an official visit to Yasukuni in Tokyo late last year.

The analysts believe it is almost certain that Abe’s long-sought meeting with Xi will help him during the upcoming campaign.

“If the meeting did not materialize, views that it would be impossible to have a meeting with Xi as long as Mr. Abe is in office could have spread during the campaign,” Liu said. At the same time, however, Liu said China remains cautious about Abe because he has exhibited ambivalent behavior, alternating between provocations and friendly gestures toward Beijing.