Henry Kissinger once famously remarked that a great power does not retreat forever. This is a particularly apt comment on China’s and South Korea’s contributions to the outcome of last weekend’s elections in Japan.

The domestic causes and consequences of the massive swing back to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as the natural party of government are of concern primarily for the people of Japan. The greater international interest in the weekend’s elections lies in the extent to which policies of the leaders in Beijing and Seoul might be one, albeit still a major one, among several explanations for the outcomes, and what the outcome might portend for the region in general, and for China and South Korea in particular.

For make no mistake: Japan’s political landscape has been dramatically transformed with a massive swing to the hardline nationalist right. The shift was already and unmistakably already under way when, in the week before the election, a Chinese aircraft penetrated Japanese-controlled airspace above disputed islands and Tokyo scrambled fighter jets in response.

China and Japan quarrel over the uninhabited but strategically important Senkaku (called Diaoyu in China) Islands. An earlier incident in September 2010 when a Chinese trawler collided with Japan Coast Guard vessels ended with a humiliating capitulation by Tokyo that was bitterly denounced by domestic opponents. The DPJ government had been calibrating relations away from Washington toward Beijing. That was swiftly reversed.

The Japanese government’s decision to purchase three of the disputed islands in September from their private owner provoked outrage in China. Ironically, it was motivated primarily by the desire to appease Beijing by preempting the hawkish then-governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, from buying and constructing buildings on them. The government’s intention was to quarantine the islands as a means of de-escalating tensions and cooling emotions.

From China’s perspective, even though the status of Japan’s administrative control over the islands had not changed one iota, the territorial status quo had been altered. Both the government and the people reacted strongly with denunciations, demonstrations and even random acts of violence to what they saw as an extremely provocative act.

Meantime, Ishihara entered into an alliance with fellow-nationalist Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto to form the Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party or JRP). Unfortunately for Beijing (and Seoul), the Isihara-led fledgling JRP, dedicated to restoring Japan’s lost imperial glory, won 54 seats. The LDP and traditional ally Komeito have a two-thirds majority, enough to overrule blocking votes in the upper house. The presence of a sizable number of JRP Diet members will ensure that the government cannot easily tack back to the center.

In his previous stint as prime minister (2006-07), LDP leader Shinzo Abe had pointedly tried to improve relations with China. Yet he is a known nationalist, skeptical that Japan’s wartime aggression against China and Korea was a crime and one who discounts evidence of sexual slavery by wartime Japanese troops in East Asia. His core conviction is believed to be to promote the teaching of a less critical and more patriotic version of Japanese history. He has promised to protect every inch of Japan’s sacred land and sea.

On the Senkaku Islands, Abe’s stated position is that he will “stop the challenge” from China. Having good relations with China is in the national interest of both countries. Japan does not wish to worsen relations, he insists, but China needs to recognize the mutual stake in good relations too.

For its part China’s state-run Xinhua news agency has warned that an “economically weak and politically angry Japan” will hurt itself and the larger world.

Japan has a similar dispute with Korea over the Takeshima islets, which the Koreans call Dokdo. In recent months Seoul upped the ante by sharpening historical and territorial issues of friction.

In August, President Lee Myung Bak made a provocative trip to the disputed islets and declared melodramatically that Dokdo was worth defending with the sacrifice of Korean lives. Melodramatic, because the islands, garrisoned by Seoul since 1954, have neither had Japanese activists attempting to land there nor the Japanese government threatening to use force to retake them. Instead, Tokyo offered to refer the case to the World Court but Seoul refused.

Koreans also insist that Japan has not done enough by way of acknowledgement, “sincere” apologies and reparations for its wartime atrocities. Lee has demanded that Japan’s Emperor issue a public apology over these. Sensible, level-headed officials in both countries who tried to dampen the dispute were accused virtually of treachery.

Having inflamed domestic opinion, Seoul was unable to implement two agreements that would have initiated trilateral defense cooperation among South Korea, Japan and the United States. This is a self-inflicted wound. If ever the South was under attack from North Korea, direct Japanese support as well as U.S. access to Japanese bases would be essential for the defense of South Korea.

Both Beijing and Seoul will be watching carefully to see if Abe submits proposals to revise the pacifist constitution, changes the military from “Self-Defense” to “National Defense” Force, and visits Yasukuni Shrine, as well as how he responds to any fresh incidents around the disputed islands.

China and South Korea appear to have boxed Japan into an impossible dilemma. If Tokyo makes concessions, its overtures are taken as evidence of weakness and demands are made for further capitulation. If Tokyo rebuffs them, this is taken as proof of a history-denying tendency in Japanese politics still in thrall to right-wing nationalism.

Violent conflict is not in any country’s interest or intention, but could erupt from accident, miscalculation, miscommunication — or hubris.

Courageous and forward-looking leadership is called for in China, Japan and South Korea. All three should acknowledge the existence of territorial disputes and refer them to the World Court for adjudication. If the leaders fail or refuse to say goodbye to these problems left over from history, then, referencing Sir Edward Grey on the eve of the Great War, they might well find themselves saying good night as the lights go out all over East Asia, unlikely to be lit again in their lifetime.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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