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Why Japan's New Nationalist Leader Is The Right Man To Ease Tensions With China

Article illustrative image Partner logo Can Abe fix it?

BEIJING - After a five-year hiatus, Shinzo Abe is back as Japan’s Prime Minister. What will this mean for China-Japan relations, which are at a historic 40-year low because of the Senkaku Islands dispute

According to observers, Chinese officials had been expecting the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to step down from power, so they knew it wasn’t very useful to start negotiations with then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to repair the two countries’ relations.

The hope instead is to reset bilateral relations with Abe who, during his previous premiership in 2006, agreed to develop “mutually beneficial strategic relations.”

The way Abe reorganized his cabinet and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) cadres after taking office, can be seen as signals to China. The first signal is that Masahiko Komura, the President of the Japan-China Friendship Parliamentarians’ Union will remain LDP’s Vice-President. Abe made plans right away to send him to China as his special envoy.

The second signal is that the party’s “doves” have been awarded foreign minister and defense minister posts so as to avoid “hawks” interfering in foreign policy.

The third signal is that Abe’s cabinet secretariat will play the leading role. Shotaro Yachi is serving as the cabinet’s diplomatic advisor to replace the inexperienced foreign secretary. In 2006, as deputy foreign minister, Shotaro Yachi had played a critical role in Abe’s “ice-breaking journey” to China.

On Dec. 25, Masato Kitera, the new Japanese Ambassador to China, took up office in Beijing. He is a top-class career diplomat. Resilient and good at communicating, Kitera will not get into bickering with the government – unlike Uichiro Niwa, his predecessor. In the context of improving China-Japan ties, this appointment will be of help. However, Kitera is not Superman, and Japan should not count on him alone to improve the two countries’ bilateral relations.

A few months ago, widespread anti-Japanese demonstrations caused decreased sales of Japanese cars in China. The amount of Chinese tourists travelling to Japan has also dropped. This is a stark contrast with trade between China and other countries – though China’s growth momentum is weakening, but still expanding. Given Japan’s current sluggish economic outlook and the fact that Japanese companies are losing their market share in China, the financial sector – which has a close relationship with Abe – is eager for the new Prime Minister to repair the ties between the two countries. Abe will not ignore their pleas.

Pragmatists v. hawks

In a survey conducted by Japanese state-owned broadcasting station, NHK, in October, 44% of respondents said the Japanese government “should attach greater importance to improving relations with China” whereas 41% said “Japan should take a tougher stance in face of China.”

Shinzo Abe is a pragmatist. Unlike the DJP administration, he differentiates between election mode and ruling mode. From the Sept. run-off to win the LDP incumbency, to the LDP’s victory in the general election, and then to his assuming office, he has gradually reduced his hawkish ambitions to a realistic pitch.

For instance, when China’s anti-Japanese demonstrations were at their peak, Abe proposed ideas for strengthening the actual control of the Senkaku Islands and for modifying Japan’s Self-Defense Forces Law to defend Japan’s territorial waters. However, these policies were not present during the LDP convention. On the contrary, as the general election grew closer, Abe said that he would like to return bilateral ties to the "initial point of mutually beneficial strategic relations."

"We must rebuild the ties of the Japan-US alliance. The Japan-US alliance must come first," Abe told Nippon TV in his first interview after winning the elections. "We also need to deepen ties with Asia. I want to build up ties with Asian nations including India and Australia. After enhancing our diplomacy, I want to improve relations with China.

In his first news conference after the election, Abe spoke further about Chinese policy: "We're not in an environment to start leadership-level talks or visit China immediately, but we will continue with persistent dialogue to improve our relations." 

The world and region have both seen major changes since the first time Abe served as Prime Minister. At that time Japan had the capability of adopting a “blockade strategy” by unifying U.S. and China’s neighboring countries. However, Japan’s economy and trade has grown more dependent on China, while the U.S.’s position as a superpower has been weakened by the financial crisis. The U.S. hopes that China-Japan relations can be improved rather than having to go to war with China over the Senkaku Islands dispute. 

Shinzo Abe’s diplomatic agenda is also a sign of better bilateral ties to come. He plans to visit the U.S. in late January, after President Obama’s second inauguration. Many experts have predicted that apart from talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the two will also talk about repairing relations between Japan, South Korea and China.

There is also a chance that when Abe attends the inauguration of Park Guen-Hye – the newly elected President of South Korea – on Feb. 25, he will take the opportunity to have contacts with his Chinese counterparts.

Spring thaw

However China watchers in Japan believe that only after the next annual meetings of the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, usually held in March, and when the new Chinese leadership has consolidated its power, will there be the possibly of a turning point in China-Japan bilateral relations.

But since several summit meetings are concentrated in the second half of this year, the two countries’ heads will have many opportunities for mediation.

The tense situation around the Senkaku Islands is still ongoing and sudden incidents cannot be ruled out. Sending civil servants to the Senkaku Islands or paying homage at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where the ashes of Japanese war criminals are kept – are some of the cards in Abe's hands. How he plays them will largely depend on China’s attitude.

In addition, considering that since the end of Junichiro Koizumi’s administration there has been a new prime minister each year, Abe, who is on his second mandate, is paying special attention to July’s Senate elections and is keeping a low profile in the hope of securing a longer period of power. Recently he emphasized that rebuilding Japan’s economy, which is what Japanese people are most eager about, was his primary concern. He hopes to see reap the fruits of economic recovery as soon as possible so as to guarantee a victory for his party in the July elections.

If the LDP and the populist right-wing Japan Restoration Party led by outspoken former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara win the majority of seats, the possibility of a break-up between the LDP and its coalition ally, the pro-peace New Komeito Party (NKP) is not to be ruled out.

Were that the case, it is possible that Abe will turn to more conservative and hawkish policies such as the exercise of the right of collective self-defense and a revision of Japan’s constitution. For those who are sincerely hoping for cordial China-Japan relations, this would be a disaster. Hence, insightful people from both countries should seize this rare “time-window” to mend Asia's most important bilateral relationship, which took generations of hard work to develop.

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