In one of the biggest landslides in Japan’s electoral history, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Shinzo Abe surged back to power in Japan’s general election last Sunday – just three years after a devastating defeat. The LDP and its ally, the New Komeito Party (NKP), won a majority with control of 325 of the 480 seats in the lower house of the Diet.
The victory of the right wing forces has the potential to heighten tension between Japan and China, especially over territorial claims over the disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Three days before the election, a Chinese maritime surveillance airplane was spotted in the territorial air space of the islands — causing Tokyo to scramble its fighter jets. The flight coincided with the 75th anniversary of the Nanjing massacre, which remains a huge source of friction between the two nations. Tokyo’s Defense Ministry reported the flight was the first violation of Japan’s airspace by an official Chinese aircraft since 1958. The following day, China provided the United Nations with detailed territorial claims to the East China Sea. Some believe these and other actions by Beijing prior to the election helped boost right-wing sentiment and vaulted the LDP and the NKP into power.
How the new Japanese government will respond to China’s display of power is troubling many. Shinzo Abe, whom the Economist calls “a hawk with distorted views of history”, has paid respects to Japan’s war dead (including leading WWII war criminals) at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Abe has previously warned China over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, saying Japan would not concede “one millimeter” of territory. Like his grandfather, the former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, he is a vocal advocate of rewriting Japan’s postwar pacifistic constitution. Written under American supervision in the aftermath of World War II, Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution specifically prohibits an act of war by the state:
“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”
The implementation of Article 9 has resulted in Japan having a secondary role in military balance in the region, and a reliance on the U.S. to back its territorial claims.
Mr. Abe is once again in a difficult position, needing to placate the nationalistic forces that drove him into office while avoiding any missteps which might cause further escalation. The Chinese are not reacting well to the results of the new election, and in a show of preemptive force, sent three of their surveillance ships yesterday into the waters near Kubajima, one of the islands in the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu chain. China has now sent official ships into the islands’ waters 20 times since Tokyo nationalized the chain in September.
Japan’s election of Shinzo Abe has clearly set off alarm bells in Beijing. Mr. Abe could choose to counter China’s aggression through his own show of strength, knowing his U.S. ally is obliged to back Japan. Instead, he should shift the focus to rebuilding Japan’s moribund economy, which has once again fallen into recession – the fifth time in 15 years. Consumer confidence is at low levels and corporate investment is lagging. By carrying out economic reforms and rebuilding economic bridges with China and other neighbors, Abe can strengthen Japan’s economic standing in the region — perhaps quelling Japan’s growing nationalistic trend that contributes to a worsening of ties with neighbors, and threatens both economic relationships and regional stability.