Defense & National Security

Japan’s swing to the right means higher tension with China

Japan's swing to the right means higher tension with China

Five years after he resigned Japan’s top job because of exhaustion, the LDP’s Shinzo Abe has managed a comeback on par with that of Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton. With his Liberal Democratic Party winning between 300 and 320 seats in the 480-member Diet (parliament) in Sunday’s election, the 58-year-old Abe will be the first postwar prime minister to serve non-consecutive stints in office. Moreover, given the size of his party’s margin in the Diet, he is likely to have a freer hand in policy than his recent predecessors — beginning with Abe himself, has gone through six prime ministers in five years.

With outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda conceding defeat and resigning the leadership of his DJP (Democratic Party), the change in government is important not only to Japan but to nearby China and to the United States as well.

Abe is an unabashed nationalist who takes power at a time when tensions between Tokyo and Beijing are being stretched to the breaking point. In September, Japan nationalized the three Senkaku Islands in the East China sea which China controls — and which Beijing calls the “Diayou.” This fueled widespread riots through China, leading to the looting and burning of several Japanese businesses there.

“Japanese exports (to China) in October fell twelve percent compared with the year before,” reported the Financial Times, “partly because of unofficial boycotts on Japanese products such as cars.”

Asked recently by the FT whether the Sino-Japanese clashes could lead to war between the two Pacific powers, “Mr. Abe just smiled and walked away.” Harvard Prof. and old Japan hand Joseph Nye, who met with Chinese leaders as part of a U.S. delegation charged with explaining the American position on the Senkaku Islands, wrote that “China is undergoing its own nationalist resurgence … General Liu Yuan argues that China should cast aside restraint, and Major General Liu Yuan urges the dispatch of hundreds of fishing to fight a maritime guerrilla war to seize territories claimed by China.”

“Abe keeps a locker there”

Even before the campaign, Abe wore his nationalist colors as if they were an Olympic Gold Medal. Much has been made of his very public visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial that includes tributes to fallen Japanese warriors including those who invaded China and Korea in the 1930s. (One joke that made the rounds in Tokyo when Abe first became prime minister in 2006 was that while his predecessor visited Yasukuni, “Abe keeps a locker there.” In addition, the once-and-future prime minister has long questioned past apologies from Japan for brutality to those neighboring countries, which has caused predictable outrage in Seoul and Beijing.

Most controversial of all is that Abe has made no secret of his desire to eventually amend Article 9 to the Japanese constitution and thus permit Japan to arm and exercise a right to self-defense. Should he move seriously in this direction, it is sure to cause concern in Washington, given that the pacifist constitution was sculpted by the U.S. during its post-war occupation of Japan under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

For now, all appears to be friendly between Washington and Tokyo. In a statement congratulating Abe on his election, President Obama said on Sunday: “The U.S-Japan Alliance serves as the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific and I look forward to working closely with the next government and the people of Japan on a range of important bilateral, regional and global issues.” Abe is expected to name to a high position Yoshimasa Hayashi, who will be the key player for maintaining closer ties with the U.S. Known as “Yogi,” onetime Defense Minister Hayashi speaks fluent English and has an impressive insight on U.S. politics.

After a year in which Americans were deluged with news about politics in this country, one should not be surprised to hear most people react to the news of a new Japanese leader with a shrug and utterance of “Big Deal!” But should tensions continue between the two economic powerhouses of Japan and China, it’s a good bet to say that whose is in charge in Japan will indeed be a big deal.

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