BEIJING – The Islamic State’s announcement last week of the kidnapping of two Japanese men has raised serious questions about how the crisis will affect Japan’s Middle East policy.
But for China, the unfolding drama has raised concerns about its neighbor’s policies closer to home.
News over the weekend of the purported execution of hostage Haruna Yukawa provoked almost as much discussion in China about the potential threat of resurgent Japanese militarism as it did about the dangers of radical extremism.
In an editorial Monday, The Global Times, a nationalist paper affiliated with another Communist Party publication, the People’s Daily, offered sympathy for Yukawa but predicted the crisis will offer “a new excuse” for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to pursue his goal of relaxing constitutional restrictions on the use of military force.
After a video purporting to show a photo of Yukawa’s beheaded body surfaced over the weekend, Abe has pledged to do everything in his power to rescue the remaining hostage, journalist Kenji Goto.
Nevertheless, some Chinese, The Global Times claimed, believe “Abe is more concerned about promoting rightist policies than rescuing hostages.”
A poll on the paper’s website appeared to prove the point. Eighty-eight percent of respondents said they believe Abe does not “sincerely” want to save the men.
The paper’s concerns appear to be reflected in Beijing’s hesitation to comment on the subject.
While leaders across the world strongly condemned the Islamic State’s actions, China soft-pedaled.
Asked about the hostage-taking on Thursday, Friday and again on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying demurred, saying only that China is “opposed to all types of terrorism . . . and all acts of extremism against innocent civilians.”
The statement was a far cry from the outrage Beijing has expressed over other acts of terrorism, most recently the attacks on the French humor publication Charlie Hebdo.
The hostage crisis comes at a time when China has increasingly questioned Japan’s commitment to peace.
Since taking office in 2012, Abe has pushed to loosen restrictions on the Self-Defense Forces, arguing they should be allowed to participate in “collective self-defense” to defend allies under armed attack even when Japan itself is not under attack.
South Korea and China strongly object to these efforts, which, they claim, point toward a resurgent militarism.
The concerns are compounded by the territorial disagreements and what China sees as Japan’s unrepentant attitude toward its actions during World War II.
The topic is especially sensitive this year as countries around the world prepare to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Chinese media reports Monday on the start of the first Diet session of the year largely focused on the question of how hard Abe will push his changes to defense policy.
The hostage situation, said Liu Jiangyong, an expert on Sino-Japanese relations at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, has the potential to tip the balance of public support in favor of Abe’s policies, which he believes are largely aimed at containing China.
“Is this policy really aimed at guaranteeing Japan’s security? Or is it the exact opposite? Moving forward, the Japanese people really need to consider this,” he said.
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