Asia

Japan's Elections Rattle China


Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister and president of the Liberal Democratic Party, gestures as he speaks during a news conference following a victory in the upper house elections at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo on July 22

Photograph by Koichi Kamoshida/Bloomberg

Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister and president of the Liberal Democratic Party, gestures as he speaks during a news conference following a victory in the upper house elections at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo on July 22

With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party rolling to a big victory in elections over the weekend, one of the biggest losers could turn out to be the country’s regional rival, China. The LDP, which already was in charge of the lower house of the Diet, regained control of the upper house on Sunday, trouncing the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. The landslide could embolden Abe, who has made no secret of his desire to counter China’s rise by rewriting the pacifist constitution imposed on the Japanese by the Americans after the end of World War II.

Even before the votes were counted, China was showing its unhappiness about Abe’s looming triumph. “To consolidate power, the prime minister and other Japanese politicians wrongfully chose to indulge a rightist tilt and constantly provoke Japan’s neighbors on sensitive territorial and historical issues,” a commentator for the official Xinhua News Agency wrote on Sunday. The article warned “if policymakers in Tokyo believe a potential election win could serve as a warrant for further rash behaviors to strain the ties with Japan’s neighbors, challenge the post-WWII world order, or abandon its pacifist commitment, they risk steering the country further down a wrong path.”

Now that the election is over and Abe is firmly in control, the Chinese seem to be steeling themselves for more confrontations over the disputed islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan (barren rocks called the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese and the Senkaku Islands by the Japanese). The official China Daily newspaper criticized the Japanese premier not only for his stand regarding the islands but also for his economic agenda designed to weaken the yen, end deflation, and revive growth in the world’s third-largest economy. “Abe persists in staging provocative shows that are alienating Japan from its neighbors,” the newspaper harrumphed. “Abe’s beggar-thy-neighbor policy is leading Japan up a blind alley, where it will be a pariah in the international community.”

The Chinese aren’t the only ones worried that Abe’s triumph may lead to trouble in Northeast Asia. South Korea has a territorial dispute with Japan, too, and if the newly emboldened LDP decides to tamper with the constitution, the Japanese government could possibly provoke further spats with both countries. A strong showing in the upper house election “could see Abe side-tracked from his economic objectives and instead turn his attentions to the defence and foreign policy objectives that were previously closest to his heart, most notably his desire to amend the constitution,” Emily Nicol, an economic researcher at Daiwa Capital Markets, wrote in a report published July 19.

A test could come as early as next month. On the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945, will Abe pay a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, the Tokyo complex honoring Japanese fallen soldiers—including some war criminals. Last year, when he was leader of the opposition, Abe paid a visit to the shrine and got an earful from China.

Now that he’s prime minister, though, one of Abe’s allies says there’s no need to worry. Despite his reputation as a hawk, Abe during his first term as premier in 2006 and 2007 focused on mending Japan’s strained ties with China, Taro Kano, a lawmaker from the LDP, told Bloomberg TV on Monday. Kano predicted Abe would not visit Yasukuni now that he’s premier. “I think he will be focusing on fixing the relationship with China,” he said.

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Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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