Harvard Asia Quarterly, 15 April, 2013 Co-Authored with Maiko Kuroki, Doctoral Candidate, LSE
See here for RUSI Journal version of this article
To outside observers of Japanese politics, Shinzo Abe’s return to power in Japan was unexpected and slightly unlikely. The unanticipated and sudden end of his first premiership seemed to be a final closure on the grand ambitions of a leader molded in the style of Prime Minister Yoshida. For despite his conservative nature, foreign policy of the first Abe cabinet was noted for its groundbreaking approach to Japan’s security and foreign policy. Noting that his flamboyant predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had begun to move Japan out of its careful and pacifist foreign policy positioning – at the request of the US in the post-9/11 period – Abe dreamt of turning Japan into a ‘normal power’, one with allies, interests, and hard and soft power. This meant developing a more balanced and equal relationship with Washington, while also developing strong ties abroad with other Asia-Pacific powers like India and Australia. It also meant developing a strong relationship with China, while simultaneously hedging against the growth of Chinese power in the region. Such a nuanced and complex policy towards Beijing would require squaring within the right-wing factions of Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but this could be ameliorated by Abe’s revisionist approach to Japan’s constitution as well as his hard-line policy vis a vis North Korea. Whatever the case, Shinzo Abe is likely to try and leave his mark on Japan’s place in the world and his second premiership is similarly likely to herald a stronger more dynamic policy vis a vis China, as well as a refocusing of Japanese foreign policy to other regional security partners besides the US. In the forty years since Tokyo and Beijing restored diplomatic relations, the bilateral relationship has seen its ups and downs. Leadership visits between Tokyo and Beijing have been characterized as ‘thawing’ at times, but unfortunately, these patches of political warmth have been interspersed with a series of mini-crises, freezing winters which seem to throw relations into hibernation. Thus far, this off-and-on-again cycle has not prevented the two countries from strengthening economic ties. At the same time, China’s economic rise has encouraged an enlarged naval force and a more assertive foreign policy on its periphery. Shinzo Abe has assumed the premiership in Japan on the back of a renewal of tensions between the two powers, centered on the maritime territorial conflict of the Senkaku Islands.
Current Sino-Japanese Ties
Much has changed in the economic and military balance between China and Japan since 2007. Trade has continued to grow in importance, while political tensions have worsened. The development of the Senkaku / Diaoyu island dispute as the predominant issue of contention between the two is far removed from previous issues, a shift from the previous cycle of on-and-off ties. Unlike past sources of tension, like Koizumi’s Yasukuni Shrine visits or historical textbooks, the objects of dissent are a real group of islands, visible, accessible, and perfectly situated between the two nations. Furthermore, both capitals have backed themselves into diplomatic corners, with little room for negotiation without losing face domestically. The porous and ungoverned nature of the maritime space increases the number of civilian actors who can interact around the islands, turning them into a political amphitheater with nationalist audiences on both sides of the East China Sea. These crucial differences, combined with a number of intertwined factors – undersea gas fields, current People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval doctrine and bureaucratic overlapping – mean that this maritime territorial dispute is easy to inflame, difficult to extinguish. The resulting increase in nationalism among the general public – and the attendant demonstrations in Beijing and to a lesser extent Tokyo – have the power to seriously derail the bilateral relationship, a relationship carefully rebuilt since 1972. Furthermore, continued media attention and naval intrusions from September 2012 indicate that the crisis is merely dormant, rather than resolved. How Abe deals with the issues vis a vis the Japanese public, his own party, and with China over this issue are likely to shape shape Sino-Japanese ties for some time into the future.
It is difficult to predict which way Abe’s policy vis a vis China will go in the next 12 months. There is a very great possibility that the Senkaku / Diaoyu issue will flare up again and lead relations to further deteriorate. Indeed, a number of Western media outlets have recently reported concerns that an escalation in incidents could lead to an outbreak of war between Japan and China. While it is true that Abe has often made ‘hawkish,’ ‘nationalistic,’ and ‘anti-China’ statements, it is clear from his first premiership that he is also extremely pragmatic in his foreign policy principles. The political dynamic in Tokyo is fairly similar to that during the previous Abe cabinet, which might lead one to believe that Abe will attempt to repeat his pragmatic approach to China this time as well.
Less than six months after assuming office, Abe must face his first electoral challenge in the form of an Upper House election, due to take place in late July 2013. In many ways this situation mirrors that of his first administration in 2006, in which Abe was constrained by the need to achieve a two-thirds majority in the Upper House as part of his constitutional revision policy. Stabilizing the Sino-Japanese relationship at that time became an important way to gain political support in the Diet, beyond the small coterie of Anti-China Diet members. This time, Abe is faced with serious economic problems, has already sought a wide-ranging set of economic reforms, now known as ‘Abenomics’. While, critics contend that these resemble the traditional LDP cash injections into the economy, Abe changed leadership at the Bank of Japan and has devalued the Yen, boosting exports. In many ways, Abe’s concentration on economics over foreign policy is just good politicking. According to a poll by the Asahi Shimbun, 48% of respondents answered that they expected Abe to focus on ‘economic-boosting policies’ and ‘employment measures’, while only 11% of respondents wanted the administration to step up its ‘diplomacy and security’ policies. In other words, economic recovery is more important than security concerns for Japanese voters. Moreover, Abe himself analyzed a factor in being reelected might be his past track record with having made improvements in the relationship with China. Therefore, it is likely that Abe seek to win the Upper house election through strong economic performance, avoiding confrontational policies with China. On the whole, he drew a curtain over his ‘hawkish’ and ‘anti-China’ political inclination and devoted to his entire attention to ‘safe driving’ to maintain stable government. At the post-election news conference on December 26th, he spoke about restoring the economy, and at his inaugural policy speech at the opening of the Diet on January 28th 2013, Abe indicated that Japan’s economic recovery is his first priority. In both speeches, he avoided discussing China or historical issues and clearly prioritized economic measures over diplomatic issues. Indeed, Shinzo Abe told the interviewer of the Washington Post that his duties and mission that he must fulfill is ‘to regain a strong and robust economy, and also to restore Japan’s strong foreign policy capability’. Thus, economic recovery is much emphasized than the China issue. Moreover, in an interview with Asahi Shimbun, one of Abe’s aides indicated that the administration exclusively focuses on economic recovery until the coming Upper House election and Abe will be in power for a longer period by avoiding a ‘twisted Diet’, and thus avoid the humiliating setback experienced in his first premiership when he lost the Upper House to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. Given these calculations, Abe’s policy of avoiding tensions derives not only from his desire to strengthen economic relations, but also stems from internal Japanese political dynamics. As a result, it can be argued that Abe want to avoid the further escalation of diplomatic crisis with China before wining the election and taking a to firm grip on power.