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Foreign Policy

After Election Victory, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Must Accept Change

Jul 27 , 2013

Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s election victory may have won some political security for himself, but some of Abe’s key policy initiatives—most notably revising Japan’s “Peace Constitution” –now look doubtful.    Abe needs urgently to reverse his country’s growing international isolation and estrangement from its most important relationships—those with China and the United States.

Stephen Harner

More vitally for Japan’s future and for regional peace and stability, Abe should open his eyes and those of his nationalist supporters to the dysfunction and fundamental inimicality to Japan’s interests of the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

On July 21, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)/New Komeito (NK) coalition won a resounding victory in the Diet Upper House elections, giving Abe strong majority in both national Diet legislative chambers and three years before the next mandated election.

Analysts continue to debate the strength of popular support for Abe and his policies.  Was the LDP/NK victory a strong popular endorsement of Abe’s leadership and agenda, or an expression of popular disillusionment and rejection of all the opposition parties?  I would say it was some of both elements.

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), from which Abe’s LDP/NK coalition wrested power in a Lower House victory last December, won only some 16% and 13% the two types of district elections.  Abe’s LDP/NK coalition won 48% and 49% of votes, respectively.  The reviving Japan Communist Party Making a strong showing, with 11% (placing third in total votes) and 10% (fourth) in the two district types.  The Osaka-based Japan Restoration Party (JRP), which garnered 12%, ahead of the Communists, in one type of voting.

What these vote totals evidence is an electorate largely supporting Abe and his agenda, but not giving him what he needed to advance his most controversial initiative:  revising Japan’s “Peace Constitution.”

Abe had hoped to be able to count on a two-thirds majority of Upper House votes in order to amend Article 96 and make future amendments possible with only a majority of both Diet houses and a majority vote of the general electorate.  The election delivered only 81 seats (from the LDP, JRP, and “Your Party”—the New Komeito having basically refused to support Constitutional revision along lines proposed by Abe), far short of the 101 seats needed for a two-thirds majority.

Abe should face little effective opposition to his main economic and even social agenda from a weakened and fractionalized opposition.  To the extent he begins to focus on and promote real structural reform (Abenomics’ “third arrow”) his main opposition will come from (the many) politicians representing special interests within the LDP.

Abe’s most urgent and—we may speculate—personally vexing challenges now are in foreign and defense policy.  Since just before wresting power from the DPJ last December, what Abe has said and done in the foreign and defense policy realms has almost invariably created or exacerbated frictions not only with Japan’s most important neighbors, South Korea and, especially, China, but also with its hitherto main backer and ally, the United States.

For the United States, no less than for China and Japan, the most serious and dangerous immediate problem is the Diaoyu/Senkaku island dispute which was escalated into a crisis level by Japan’s “nationalization” last September.  Still in opposition, Abe and his nationalist supporters in the LDP supported the provocative and destabilizing act of nationalization, and have since steadfastly defended it.

A weak and poorly led Hillary Clinton/Kurt Campbell U.S. State Department—then as now subordinated and accommodative to the U.S. Department of Defense in Japan policy–should have forbidden Prime Minister Noda’s government to go through with nationalization.  It failed to do so, an egregious blunder of historic dimensions in U.S. diplomacy.   Japan’s nationalists, Abe among them, have been delighted to have engineered in Diaoyu/Senkaku a fait accompli that they hope anchors a U.S. commitment under the U.S.-Japan alliance to defend Japan, while providing a ready argument for the “China threat.”

Though Japan’s nationalists, including Abe, have been largely oblivious to the fact, the Diaoyu/Senkaku crisis has been highly damaging to Japan, in ways far beyond the crisis itself.    Seeking support for Japan’s position, Abe has visited almost all the ASEAN countries touting a new, activist foreign policy based on “universal democratic values” and the “rule of law.”   His approaches have met with polite lip service if not irritation and schadenfreude.

From the Obama administration (except for “China threat” clique within DoD), initial “business only” coolness toward Abe and his nationalistic proclivities has deepened into a virtual “persona non grata” treatment, with Obama avoiding one-on-one meetings as a way of pressuring Abe—now that the Upper House elections are past–to begin making serious, substantive approaches to Beijing, in due course including real concessions to deescalate the Diaoyu/Senkaku crisis.

As a start, it is certain that August 15 (the date marking the end of WWII for Japan) will come and go without a visit to Yasukuni Shrine from Prime Minister Abe.  After that Abe will have to take action or risk a major rupture with the U.S.

But there is a deeper, more strategic issue here, both for Japan and the United States.  It is the dysfunctionality and essential inimicality to the interests of both countries of the U.S.-Japan “alliance”.  It is highly unlikely that Japan, ignoring China’s warnings, would have pursued its provocative Diaoyu/Senkaku “nationalization” had the alliance not existed.  (Indeed, it is a theory that the nationalists’ ulterior motive in creating the crisis was to “strengthen” the alliance by ensnarling the U.S. in an intractable territorial dispute.)

Even before the Sunnylands Summit, it was clear that U.S. strategic interests require building a stable, constructive, “win-win” relationship with this century’s premier East Asian power, China.  For China, the same calculation and objective exists toward the U.S.  The U.S.-Japan military alliance, and the role of Japan as a platform for threatening U.S. forward military bases, is incompatible with any stable, sustainable new regional order.

Abe and his nationalist supporters, both in Japan and the U.S., must accept this reality.

Stephen M. Harner served in the U.S. State Department in Beijing and Tokyo before joining Citibank in 1981.  He has worked for Merrill Lynch Bank, Deutsche Bank, and Ping An Bank in Japan and China.  He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University (SAIS).

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