Would Japanese nationalist Abe's return to premiership fuel row with China?

Japan's main opposition party has chosen Shinzo Abe, the nationalist former prime minister, to lead it, positioning him to likely return to the prime minister's office by year's end.

Toru Hanai/Reuters
Japan's newly elected main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) President Shinzo Abe takes the rostrum as he stands next to a Japanese national flag at a news conference at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo on Wednesday, Sept. 26.

As Japan's relations with China and Taiwan reach the lowest point in years, the country's main opposition party has elected a hawkish former prime minister to lead the party, positioning him to be the likely next premier.

Shinzo Abe, who resigned as Japan's prime minister in 2007 a year and a day after taking office citing of deadlock and health problems, was chosen as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party on Wednesday. With an election in the next few months, and the Democratic Party of Japan government trailing badly in opinion polls, Mr. Abe looks set to return to the prime minister's office, though probably with the help of a coalition partner.  

Abe is seen as a strong nationalist and, along with all the other candidates in the leadership race, has been calling for a tougher line with China over the territorial row about the set of small islands that Japan calls Senkaku and China calls Diaoyu. However, analysts say he will take a pragmatic approach if he becomes prime minister, as he did in his last period in office. Indeed, early comments following his election as party leader indicate he has already begun to soften his stance. 

"We must show our will to firmly protect our territorial waters and the Senkaku islands in the face of China's actions. That said, when I took office as prime minister six years ago, I visited China first because the Japan-China relationship is very important," Abe told reporters in Tokyo after his victory today. "Even if our national interests clash, we should acknowledge that we need each other and control the situation while thinking about things strategically. My stance on this has not changed." 

As a politician, Abe is known by critics as a security hawk who has angered China and Korea with what were seen as denials of parts of Japan’s wartime aggression. In office, however, he was more conciliatory, choosing not to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the souls of Class A war criminals are said to be interred.

“If Abe does become prime minister, the right-wing in Japan is likely to be disappointed, while people in the center will be reassured,” says Jun Okumura, a senior political analyst at the Eurasia Group.  

However, the tensions with China over the islands, which the Japanese government recently bought from a private landowner to head off a more provocative bid to buy them by Tokyo’s nationalist governor, are unlikely to be solved easily.

The Chinese and Japanese foreign ministers held tense talks on the issue Tuesday in New York, at the periphery of a United Nations meeting, though reportedly made no progress.

To complicate matters further, Taiwan, which also claims the islands, sent a flotilla to within three miles of the disputed territory on Tuesday. Japan’s Coast Guard boats sprayed a water cannon at them, ordering the boats to leave. The Taiwanese boats responded with their own water canons and received a hero’s welcome when they returned home.

“The water fight was an embarrassment and begs the question: Why didn’t the Japan Coast Guard shoot water at the Chinese ships that entered Japanese territory? It’s like a first-grader fighting with other kids in the same grade but scared to fight with the third-grade kids,” says the Eurasia Group’s Mr. Okumura.  

“This must have created a good deal of satisfaction in Beijing, as it brought Taiwan closer to the Chinese side,” adds Okumura.

Interestingly, Abe is popular with some pro-independence politicians in Taiwan. That may partially be explained by the fact that both his grandfather and great uncle were pro-Taiwanese politicians. Japan does not officially recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state in order to avoid antagonizing China, which regards Taiwan as rogue province.  

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