China Irked by “Hawkish” Abe

A Xinhua News editorial laments the victory of the Liberal Democratic Party in last weekend’s election and the imminent elevation of Shinzo Abe as Japan’s new prime minister:

LDP leader Shinzo Abe was hawkish on the campaign trail, which forecasts more assertive foreign and defense policies by the government he will head. And one of the major things on his to-do list is bolstering Japan’s military and coastal defenses.

Though Abe paid lip service to improving China-Japan relations after the election, no specific proposals have been made by Japanese political parties to mend relations with Japan’s neighbors. And his words so far on the islands dispute with China run counter to better relations.

The LDP’s manifested foreign and defense policies won’t win Japan friends. Instead, they may destabilize East Asia.

Abe adds another dimension to the standoff in the East China Sea, according to Mark McDonald of The New York Times. He wasted little time in warning China over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, telling a reporter that Japan would not concede “one millimetre” of territory and encouraging China to “think anew” about a mutually beneficial approach to the issue. The LDP’s return to power shows that Japan has grown increasingly nationalistic, says Ian Bremmer, who tells Reuters that Japan was “Godzilla” in a year filled with big elections:

The next logical step for Japan is to engage with other countries that are concerned about China’s rise. That, of course, means strengthening ties with the United States just as much of the country wants to move beyond the legacy of U.S. influence in the country. But reducing its reliance on China could be wise in the long term for a country trying to fend off a neighbor whose growth isn’t going to stall anytime soon. What Japan wants to avoid is a situation similar to the one that played out between Russia and Georgia in 2008. Japan has to resist China’s provocations, or else risk getting drawn into a deadly confrontation with a larger country that has something to prove. That would hurt the Japanese economy far more than tacking away from China to strengthen its relationship with alternatives like the U.S.

The last time Abe was elected prime minister, in 2006, his first foreign trip was to China. Don’t count on it this time around.

For The Diplomat, Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute writes that the Abe’s policies may enhance regional stability for the same reasons that make China nervous:

Clearly, Beijing would not be amused by a stronger, less-constrained, more confident Japan. But much of the rest of Asia wouldn’t mind. There might be grumbling over Japan’s failure to fully account for its wartime atrocities (and Abe has been on the wrong side of this in the past), but most smaller nations are eager for Tokyo to become a counterweight to China. They may make this case quietly (or in the case of the Philippines, not so quietly), but a stronger Japan that remained closely wedded to the United States would likely be welcomed by states that have territorial disputes with China or worry about the growing presence of the PLA Navy in the region’s common waters.

Where Abe could make a real difference would be in proposing some significant public goods provisions by Japan, in addition to merely building up Japan’s military strength. Working more closely with regional coast guards on training or further revising the arms export law to allow for sales to Southeast Asian nations could help them build up their own capabilities. A greater maritime presence in the East China Sea and perhaps more partnering on training patrols in the South China Sea would answer many of the calls by Hanoi and Manila for a bigger Japanese presence.

Beijing would only see this as an attempt by Tokyo to contain China, which is fantasy, given the disparity in size between the two militaries. Yet it speaks volumes about Beijing’s assessment of its own isolation, and Japan’s potential strength, that it takes so seriously such modest attempts at reform. It would be refreshing if China welcomed Japan’s larger role as one that can contribute to regional stability, in part by reducing the chance of miscalculation by countries that believe they can intimidate smaller nations into surrendering their national claims. Of course, since that currently seems to apply mainly to China, there’s little chance Asia’s two giants will grope their way to a more productive relationship, even by accident.