The landslide victory of Shinzō Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party over the reigning Democratic Party of Japan was an outcome that was widely predicted, but the gravitas of this tectonic shift in Japanese politics is yet unknown. Early indicators suggest that Abe’s administration will complicate the Sino – US relationship and aggravate tensions in East Asia.
Japan’s Lower House election on December 16th was effectively a referendum on the wildly unpopular policies of the incumbent DPJ and the sitting prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda. After taking office in September, 2011, Mr. Noda made tackling Japan’s gargantuan public debt a top priority and successfully passed a plan to significantly raise consumption taxes. Abe and the LDP rallied the opposition by tapping into voter frustration over tax increases during a recession; Abe’s promises to stimulate the economy and weaken the yen were his most successful weapons on the campaign trail.
However, Chinese and South Korean policymakers are worried that the new prime minister’s agenda may extend beyond the domestic economy – namely that his conservative politics will exacerbate longstanding diplomatic issues with Beijing and Seoul. Although Abe’s early statements to the public following his party’s victory emphasized his commitment to strengthening ties in Asia, his past actions and reputation as a right-wing nationalist have led some in the Chinese and South Korean medias to brand him a radical.
Abe – who was prime minister for a year before resigning under mitigating circumstances in September, 2007 – claims that he finally has the know-how to maintain public support this time around. He acknowledges that his first term was unsuccessful because he spent too much time on social issues like educational reform at a time when the public demanded economic policy changes. Having learned from this, he says, he won’t make the same mistake twice. However, the fact remains that he only managed to eke out a narrow victory in the run-off election to determine the LDP party president in September. And while the newly-elected LDP majority may be in lock-step with Abe on proposed economic measures, many of them are more moderate on foreign policy. If the Abe cabinet overplays its hand by pushing a new diplomatic agenda before consolidating power, the new prime minister could face resistance from within his own party and a rapidly regrouping opposition.
Despite Abe’s assertions that the economy will come first, his social agenda is already taking center stage. In October, he made an official visit as LDP party president to Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan’s war dead are honored. Past visits by Japanese politicians have been condemned as diplomatically unacceptable by China and South Korea because 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined there. Abe gained favor in China during his previous term as prime minister by declining to visit the controversial shrine and choosing instead to mend relations with Beijing; he has forgone that courtesy this time.
The primary concern for Chinese policymakers should be the successful commencement of negotiations for the proposed free trade agreement between China, Japan, and South Korea. The incoming trade minister, Mr. Toshimitsu Motegi, is likely to be less reliably pro-China than the DPJ’s Yukio Edano, who held the post under Prime Minister Noda. Abe has publically stated that he supports the US-backed Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership as an alternative to an accord with China and South Korea, although his party remains divided on the issue. The appointment of Mr. Motegi – who was educated at Harvard – to oversee trade negotiations could be viewed as a sign of Abe’s inclination toward trade deals with the United States.
If the diplomatic friction between Japan and China worsens under the Abe administration, the proposed trilateral agreement may be in danger of lapsing into a bilateral accord between China and South Korea. The circumstances are compounded by the election of South Korea’s first female president, Park Gyun-hye, who blasted Abe for his nationalist ideals shortly after her victory on December 19th. On December 31st, Abe stated that he plans to revise two landmark apologies to the victims of Japan’s wartime atrocities, originally delivered in 1993 and 1995. Having claimed that there is no historical evidence to suggest that wartime sexual slaves, or “comfort women,” had been coerced, Abe will most likely attempt to dilute the apologies. Even the suggestion that the apologies be revised has further strained relations with China and South Korea.
Abe’s controversial comments were answered with South Korea’s refusal to extradite Liu Qiang, a Chinese national who allegedly committed an arson attack on Yasukuni Shrine in December, 2011. The decision, passed down by a South Korean court on January 3rd, was protested by the Japanese government and welcomed by the Chinese. Though Liu spent 10 months in a South Korean prison, he has yet to stand trial in Japan. Once remanded by the Chinese, Liu could become yet another bone of contention between Tokyo and Beijing.
Though Abe’s intentions remain unclear, the safest way for the Chinese government to contain his influence is to tread carefully. Chinese escalation in the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute or excessive aggravation over the LDP’s educational reform policies will only serve to legitimize Abe’s right-wing agenda in the eyes of Japanese voters. As long as China doesn’t react harshly, Japanese conservatives will have a much less compelling case for staying in power when the House of Councillors election is held this coming July.
Abe will make Washington DC his first official destination, and is expected to meet with President Obama sometime during late January. The president must establish a relationship with Japan’s new prime minister that includes an explicit understanding of America’s role in the region. In the interest of avoiding any serious conflict, the he must remind Abe that the Japan – US Security Treaty was adopted to protect Japan from foreign aggression and not to give the Japanese government license to pick fights. Though Mr. Obama will certainly welcome the LDP’s pro-US policy, he will also hope to avoid offending Beijing. The appointment of Senator John Kerry as the successor to Secretary of State and noted China hawk Hillary Clinton may be one facet of a more conciliatory approach toward China.
Japan is in dire need of both economic revitalization and improved diplomatic relations. It appears that Shinzō Abe has sold the Japanese electorate on his vision for the economy, but he will likely continue to be as polarizing an international figure as he ever has been. The unfortunate reality is that the two issues are inextricably linked; brash foreign policy could alienate key Japanese trading partners like South Korea, and scupper attempts to strengthen economic ties with China. Facing criticism from adversaries and allies alike, Mr. Abe would do well to temper his tone. If he doesn’t, he will end up like the five other Japanese prime ministers over the last five years – out of a job.
Colin Moreshead is a freelance writer living and working in Tokyo. His research focuses primarily on East Asian trade relations and exchange rate policy.