Japan: Is Abe on a Collision Course?

23 Jan, 2013    ·   3800

Rana Divyank Chaudhary analyses the recalibration in Japanese foreign policy post Shinzo Abe's election

Rana Divyank Chaudhary
Rana Divyank Chaudhary
Research Intern
Since Shinzo Abe took over as Japan’s Prime Minister, tensions between Japan and China over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku (Diaoyu Islands according to China) Islands in East China Sea have peaked. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has proposed to increase Japan’s defence budget to 4.71 trillion Yen, aiming to equip the military with greater maritime and airborne assets. Are these developments linked to Abe’s overt nationalist rhetoric? What direction is he really steering Japan’s foreign relations towards?  
Strengthening political toehold at home
Change threatens to be in the offing for East Asia after the recent power transition in Japan. Abe, leader of Japan’s right-wing LDP, is a known security hawk on foreign policy matters. Like in the past, he ran his campaign on similar promises of making Japan’s international stature more prominent and its foreign policy more assertive. 
Abe’s speeches and acts have been seen as usual tactics for gaining political ground as a credible hardliner within the LDP and conservative constituencies in Japan. His party has to fight elections in July 2013 in the upper house of the parliament. A clear majority therein will be crucial for passing any significant legislation. 
The LDP’s victory in 2012 election is primarily an outcome of the Japanese desperation for political change. Japan’s domestic problems which precipitated since the 2011 earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear disaster swerved popular opinion sharply against the incumbent Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leading to its defeat. This places Abe’s political choices into perspective. He has to work towards delivering Japan from its internal failings alongside expanding its role in international affairs.
Abe is in favour of bringing Japan’s nuclear power plants back online and building new ones till the country devises an alternative energy strategy. The new cabinet has proposed to avert future disasters by reformulating environmental and energy policies and introducing advanced reactor designs. 
According to a survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, a majority of the mayors of Japan’s 132 nuclear cities said that they would agree to restart the reactors under guarantees of improved safety. Steps such as these are aimed at giving a fillip to an economy beset by recession, deflation and demographic problems which have hobbled economic growth for a long time.
Under the present domestic circumstances neither Abe nor the Japanese public are willing to lean as far to the right on foreign policy as critics fear. Abe may have committed himself to a sterner position on geopolitical issues but he is not yet enacting a dramatic reversal of his predecessors’ policies.
Increasing Japan’s footprint in Asia
Abe’s election campaign promise to “reinterpret” the Japanese constitution’s ban on war and collective defence may have to wait, for now. He is a staunch supporter of the US-Japan alliance and sees it as a wrench in the works, apt to contain China’s regional and global aspirations. But the US would be wary of being drawn into a conflagration, which might erupt as a result of any fundamental change in Japan’s military posture. This factor will make it prudent for Abe to reassess Japan’s relative gains out of seeking radical changes in status quo. 
Of greater priority, obviously, is shoring up post-election ratings of his government and strengthening Japan’s ties with its allies and reliable friends. This possibly explains why Abe’s proposal to expand the constitutional provisions for the military appears to seek minimum controversy abroad. He has also made public his intentions to engage with China in a dialogue over the islands dispute.
Abe recently toured Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia and spoke for greater economic and strategic cooperation. His Foreign Minister, Fumio Kishida went to Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines and Australia, and Taro Aso, the Deputy Prime Minister, went to Burma. Japanese companies are showing a heightened interest in exploring new investment avenues in Southeast Asia indicating Japan’s upcoming “pivot” to this region.  
Will Abe's rhetoric vis-à-vis China materialise?
The security environment in East and Southeast Asia has changed dramatically since the last time Abe held power in Japan. The regions’ threat perception vis-à-vis China acts as an enabler for Japan’s imminent foreign policy shift. This is an opportunity for Abe to make good on his plans to revive national pride and global prestige. He certainly seems set on accomplishing more this time around.
If the currently simmering territorial feud with China boils over, Japan would be loath to leave any geostrategic ends loose. The ASEAN typically counterbalances China’s “peaceful rise,” which is feared to be a thinly veiled drive for regional hegemony. Bringing Southeast Asia up on Japan’s radar is Abe’s most credible step towards lessening the country’s economic dependence on China and insuring against strategic isolation in the event of a conflict. 
A close alliance between Japan, India, Australia, and the US, cooperating to box in China, is at the heart of Abe’s proposed grand strategy. This “democratic security diamond” becoming a reality will determine the success of his drive to gain strategic edge over China and global parity with the great powers. However, the risk of prematurely alarming China and precipitating a crisis will badly haunt Abe’s diplomatic calculus.