Foreign Affairs

China hard-liner likely to take charge in Japan

China hard-liner likely to take charge in Japan
Shinzo Abe

Barely a month after Americans were finally finished with the marathon-like process that is a presidential election, it is probably unfair to ask them to focus on another election in a far-away country.

But the question of who’s in charge in Japan could be critical to the U.S. in the long term if not in the short — especially if the already tense relations between Japan and China reaches the boiling point.

If polls in Japan are accurate and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) comes to power in national elections Dec. 16, the man in charge in Tokyo will be someone long viewed with animosity from Beijing: Shinzo Abe, who before and during his previous stint as prime minister (2006-07) made it clear he was among the hardest of hard-liners when it came to China, which in the last decade has surpassed the U.S. as Japan’s largest trading partner.

Fears of a clash between China under its just-installed new leadership and Japan under Abe are now growing in official Washington. Earlier this year, there was a very public dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. In China, claims of ownership of the islands resulted in massive protests that included looting and burning of Japanese companies’ property. In Tokyo, there was a protest march in front of the Chinese embassy amid fears that the Chinese would honor their claims by invading the Senkaku Islands; known in China as the “Diaoyu.”

Japan must, declared Abe during his winning bid to retake the helm of the LDP this year, “make clear to the Chinese government our strong intention not to allow Chinese ships to enter (Japan’s territorial waters).”

Return of “The Prince”

With economic indicators pointing to a recession for Japan by early 2013 and polls showing approval of his DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) at an all-time low , embattled Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda last month called a “snap” election — a sprint, in contrast to the U.S. marathon — for Dec. 16. The political instability of Japan is made clear by the fact that Noda is that country’s sixth prime minister in as many years.

When his rival Shinzo Abe became Japan’s youngest prime minister at 52 in 2006, his accession to power was dubbed the political “hat trick.” He was the third member of his family to hold the job, his grandfather and great-uncle having both been prime ministers. Abe’s father Shintaro was once foreign minister and seemed headed for the top job himself until cancer claimed his life.

Small wonder that Shinzo’s nickname is “The Prince!”

But “The Prince” never lived up to advance notices and, as the Japanese economy grew unraveled in 2007, he left office after being hospitalized for exhaustion.

With the economy much worse and Japanese politics more fractious than six years ago, Abe, an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, is not remembered unkindly.

A sure sign of a changed political climate among the Japanese from when Abe first took political power is that his much-criticized hard-line on China — “nationalism” to critics — is being given a second look. He has long called for amending his country’s American-written post-war constitution to permit Japan to maintain a full-blown military force and respond to attack.

“This is pseudo-constitutional,” Hishakio Okazaki, Abe’s issues adviser, described the limitation on re-armament to the Financial Times, “To me and Abe, this interpretation is ridiculous, even though it has held for half-a-century. It is very easy to change.”

Abe has long maintained a very public regimen of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japan’s 2.5 million warriors who died in the name of the emperor. Since their ranks include those who brutally assaulted China in the 1930’s, the Chinese leadership has vigorously denounced the shrine and Japanese politicians such as Abe who visit it.

Another likely source of irritation for China, should Abe be in power, is his call for overhauling the Japanese public education system. The former prime minister believes that the teaching of sorrow for past attacks on China and South Korea is “self-flagellating,” and also questioned Tokyo apologies to those two nations.

Coupled with the likely election of a fellow China hard-liner Park Guen-hye as South Korea’s first woman president Dec. 19, the return to power of Shinzo Abe in Japan three days earlier is likely to be watched cautiously in Beijing. Washington will take notice of the Pacific more closely as well.

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