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China hawks gain ground among Japan's conservatives, long divided on Beijing

by Satoshi Sugiyama

STAFF WRITER

In March, due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was forced to postpone plans to roll out the red carpet for Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a state guest. Four months later, the topic is still making waves within his party.

Earlier this month, a group of Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers pushed for a resolution demanding the state visit be called off — a highly unusual moment that pitted the prime minister against his fellow party members at the Diet.

The clash between them speaks to a history of mixed views on the world’s second-largest economy among Japanese conservatives, who have been torn for years between longing to preserve a solid economic partnership and caution over its swelling diplomatic and military influence.

But with recent provocative moves by the communist neighbor in Hong Kong and the East China Sea, conservatives within the LDP are facing a reckoning moment, with moderates losing ground to hard-liners pushing the central government to step up its pressure on Beijing.

Not welcome

Abe extended the invitation to Xi at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Osaka last year, with the visit scheduled to be held sometime in April.

Even before the plan was derailed by the novel coronavirus pandemic, conservative hard-liners were adamantly opposed to it due to arrests of Japanese citizens on murky charges and repeated breaches of the territorial waters around the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. In March, the government announced the visit would be postponed for an indefinite period.

“We aren’t opposed to (Xi’s) state visit to Japan necessarily, but rather I think the current timing is not appropriate for the state visit given the circumstances,” said Yasuhide Nakayama, a Lower House lawmaker and director of the party’s foreign affairs division.

Chinese government vessels have repeatedly breached the territorial waters around the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, stoking concern among some quarters in Tokyo. | JAPAN COAST GUARD / VIA KYODO
Chinese government vessels have repeatedly breached the territorial waters around the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, stoking concern among some quarters in Tokyo. | JAPAN COAST GUARD / VIA KYODO

Mentioning that the Chinese government had sent government vessels to waters near the Senkaku Islands for over 100 straight days, he said, “I believe there are many Japanese citizens who feel intuitively that what’s happening in reality is incongruent with the noble goal of cultivating friendly relations between Japan and China.”

The state visit had been thought of as an opportunity for Abe to showcase improved Japan-China relations, and a milestone following the 2008 state visit by China’s then-leader Hu Jintao, but Nakayama compiled a resolution demanding for it to be canned altogether. His division had already filed two motions seeking condemnation of Chinese involvement in the crackdowns in Hong Kong.

The resolution came a week after China had passed a new security law for Hong Kong that would essentially strip its autonomy, and give Beijing greater power to suppress dissidents. It criticized the legislation’s passage, and pressed the Japanese government to issue work visas for Hong Kong citizens looking to relocate.

More importantly, it was the first time the party committee had asked the government to cancel the state visit in a resolution.

“Given the current situation in which the international community expresses grave concerns on the principles of liberty, human rights and democracy … the party’s foreign affairs division and research commission on foreign affairs have no choice but to request President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Japan be canceled,” the resolution stated.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Japan rebuked the resolution, describing it as “violent interference in (China’s) internal affairs.”

In fact, not even everyone from within the party was on board with it.

Several lawmakers, including the LDP’s Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, known for his pro-China disposition, were hesitant to use the phrase “request to cancel” explicitly with regard to the state visit in the resolution, and pushed for a milder phrase such as “to be reconsidered.”

The foreign affairs division spent two hours on July 6 debating the wording, but only five out of about 30 attendees sympathized with Nikai’s view and urged redaction or rephrasing of the term “request to cancel.”

Yasuhide Nakayama, a Lower House lawmaker and the LDP’s foreign affairs division director | KYODO
Yasuhide Nakayama, a Lower House lawmaker and the LDP’s foreign affairs division director | KYODO

Ryuji Koizumi, a Lower House member and director-general of the party’s international bureau, was among the lawmakers cautious about axing the state visit. While he understood the intention to adopt a resolution on the issue, and appeal to the Prime Minister’s Office, he feared doing so would damage Japan-China relations.

“There’s a possibility that communication with China would be cut off from now on, if we demand the government rescind the invitation to someone who represents China, as the head of the state, even though we are the ones who invited him,” he recalled having said at the meeting, in an interview with The Japan Times this week.

“If you want the Chinese to change their behavior, you need to communicate with them on a high level and deliver stern messages. (Demanding a cancellation) would abandon or reject the option (of changing China’s behavior) so I pressed (the division leaders) to modify the phrase.”

The division did partially dial back the phrasing, from “request the state visit be canceled” to “have no choice but to request the state visit be canceled.” The resolution was eventually passed by the division and was adopted at the party’s highest-ranking decision-making board on July 7.

But during a news conference the same day, Nikai sounded disgruntled. He scolded lawmakers calling for tough measures, noting that their predecessors had worked “tirelessly” to bring the two countries together and that they should be careful about their remarks and deeds.

Nakayama submitted the resolution and directly appealed to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga the following day. Suga said he would graciously accept it. The top government spokesman had said the government was prioritizing its response to the virus, and was not at the point of arranging the state visit.

Mixed views

Historically, views on China among Japanese conservatives — sometimes stereotypically associated with hard-line, right-wing activists who use inflammatory anti-China rhetoric — are not unified.

There are scores of lawmakers, including hard-line conservatives, who are vigilant of China’s expanding political, social, economical and military power. And there is also a group of conservative lawmakers who value economic cooperation, and push Japan to align with China.

A nuclear-powered Type 094A Jin-class ballistic missile submarine operated by the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is seen during a military parade in the South China Sea in April 2018. China's swelling global diplomatic and military influence has worried some policymakers in Japan. | REUTERS
A nuclear-powered Type 094A Jin-class ballistic missile submarine operated by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is seen during a military parade in the South China Sea in April 2018. China’s swelling global diplomatic and military influence has worried some policymakers in Japan. | REUTERS

In 1972, then-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, a conservative heavyweight, normalized diplomatic relations with China.

By providing more than ¥3 trillion as foreign aid over 40 years, Japan embedded itself in the country’s sweeping economic boom and benefited greatly from it. China is the largest Japanese trading partner, has the largest number of overseas branches of Japanese firms in the world and contributes the highest number of tourists to Japan, totaling 9.59 million in 2019, according to the foreign ministry.

Although Tanaka died in 1993, his sympathetic view on China has been passed down through generations of LDP lawmakers, perhaps most notably Nikai, the LDP’s secretary-general.

A long-time advocate for foreign aid to China who has close relationships with high-ranking leaders in the Communist Party of China, Nikai is sympathetic to the country.

A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies described his powerful faction as “the LDP’s pro-China group.” It further noted his experience serving as the prime minister’s special envoy to China to meet Xi in April 2019, two months before Abe extended the state visit invite, and support for the Belt and Road initiative, Beijing’s global infrastructure program that critics slam as a tool for its expansionist policy.

Masaya Inoue, professor of Japanese political and diplomatic history at Seikei University in Tokyo, said the resolution gave a glimpse into the power struggle inside the LDP: China-skeptic hawks have an advantage, and the conservative split within the party is not as evident as in the past.

A more accurate portrayal, Inoue added, would be that the party is in general skeptical of China, while small factions are resisting that view and urging for Japan-China relations not to be undermined.

Toshihiro Nikai (left, front), the Liberal Democratic Party's secretary-general and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in December 2017. | KYODO
Toshihiro Nikai (left, front), the Liberal Democratic Party’s secretary-general and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in December 2017. | KYODO

In contrast with Tanaka’s pro-China force, former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda was opposed to the normalization of diplomatic relations with China.

In 2001, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose thinking aligned with the Fukuda faction, visited Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are among those honored, upsetting the Chinese.

Since that time, pro-China lawmakers in the LDP have been eclipsed. Abe and Nakayama, the foreign affairs division chief, align themselves with Fukuda’s viewpoints.

But speaking with The Japan Times last week, Nakayama disputed any suggestion that Nikai was complacent toward China. He shared an anecdote from his time as deputy secretary-general, a few years ago, when constituents confronted him for working under Nikai.

When he spoke with Nikai, seeking guidance on how he should respond to such an encounter, the secretary-general revealed why he had worked hard on a friendly approach toward China.

“He told me, ‘Hey Nakayama, I am often accused of being pro-China or fawning upon China, but can someone inside a wall hear what folks outside the wall are saying? You gotta go inside the wall and deal directly with someone who has authority like Xi Jinping. I’m working hard to get inside the wall,’” Nakayama said.

When he accompanied Nikai on two trips to China, he saw that his superior didn’t shy away from confronting Xi, top diplomat Yang Jiechi or Foreign Minister Wang Yi over issues such as the Senkaku Islands. Thinking about Nikai’s position now, Nakayama said he felt as if the former envoy had been stabbed in the back.

Turning point?

Despite his well-known hawkish views on national security, Abe has avoided hard confrontations with China.

Wedged between China and the United States, Abe has so far maneuvered Japan beneath the radar, avoiding antagonizing either global superpower.

After the national security law was passed, the government issued a statement calling the move “regrettable” and saying that it “undermines the credibility of the ‘one-country, two-systems’ principle.”

Abe’s close inner circle seems to influence his decision-making on China. The CSIS study noted that Abe’s senior adviser and former Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry bureaucrat Takaya Imai was an individual who had “persuaded the prime minister to take a softer approach toward China and its infrastructure projects on business grounds.”

Protesters, including Hong Kongers living in Tokyo, hold banners at a rally in support of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, near the city's economic and trade office in Tokyo last September. | REUTERS
Protesters, including Hong Kongers living in Tokyo, hold banners at a rally in support of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, near the city’s economic and trade office in Tokyo last September. | REUTERS

Considering Hong Kong, and worsening relations with the U.S. and Europe, Japan is unlikely to pursue advancing its relations with China as it had been eager to do through the state visit in April, said Inoue, the Seikei University professor.

China’s clampdown in Hong Kong would directly contradict Abe’s preference for “value-oriented diplomacy” emphasizing human rights and democracy, he said, suggesting the prime minister would therefore see little or no merit in pursuing the path.

At the same time, he said Abe was also unlikely to change his course of action toward China, as the U.S. has been doing.

“Regarding Japan’s foreign policy toward China, it has coincidently sought engagement during the containment,” Inoue said.

“As hard-liners within the party are applying pressure on the government (to take a tough stance), it’s going to take a realistic approach. Abe isn’t necessarily pro-China, so I believe he will be strategic and cautious about it.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, in September 2018 | KYODO
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, in September 2018 | KYODO

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