Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, the country's main opposition party, is likely to sweep Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's ruling Democratic Party of Japan in the general election scheduled for Dec. 16, according to polls released yesterday. The projected LDP win would install Shinzo Abe as the country’s prime minister for the second time.
Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and William Grimes, chairman of the Department of International Relations at Boston University, told Trend Lines these elections have major implications for Japan, particularly in foreign policy.
“This election could be a turning point for the region if a more conservative Japanese leadership takes Japan in a more militarized direction,” Smith said, explaining that Abe, who was prime minister from 2006 to 2007, is widely seen as a conservative nationalist looking to strengthen the Japanese military. “What is less clear is whether or not the LDP will also undertake an assertive diplomatic effort to improve relations with its neighbors.”
“Without a serious effort at reconciliation” with Japan's neighbors, Smith continued, some LDP policies could “intensify Japan’s isolation in the region."
Grimes described Abe as a right-wing leader who is “assertive in terms of how he thinks Japan should run its foreign policy,” adding that while Abe is likely to expand military cooperation with the United States, he may also ask the U.S. to back him up on controversial issues.
Noting the damage to Japanese public opinion of the U.S. military done by crimes committed by American service members stationed at Okinawa as well as the controversial basing of Osprey aircraft on the island, Grimes said the U.S. would welcome the stronger defense relationship Abe is likely to pursue.
But a hawkish Japanese foreign policy, Grimes said, could pose problems for the U.S., especially given the potential of a confrontation between Japan and China over disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Smith explained that Noda “has taken a calm and cautious approach” to the island dispute, whereas Abe has advocated for “a more assertive demonstration” of Japanese control over the islands.
Should Abe become prime minister, there could be an escalation of tensions with China, which would “pose challenges for alliance management” between Japan and the U.S, she said.
Grimes explained that “Abe annoys neighbors,” warning that the list of potential flashpoints is long and not limited to relations between Japan and China. “He needlessly provokes potential allies like South Korea and the Philippines, these countries that are U.S. allies and aligned with Japan and Australia, with his comments about history that are both demonstrably wrong and extremely politically stupid.”
The issue of comfort women, for instance, has been a source of strain in the Japanese-Korean relationship since World War II. Abe, Grimes said, denies that the Japanese military forced these women into sex slavery. This position is “likely to impede deeper cooperation between Japan and South Korea” should Abe be elected prime minister, Grimes said.
Nonetheless, Smith said, an Abe win is not likely to affect the relationship between the U.S. and Japan in any major way unless a crisis occurs in the East China Sea. The alliance is on a sound footing, particularly after last year’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, she said.
“Both governments, and now both publics, appreciate the value of the alliance,” she said, calling Noda a strong advocate for enhancing cooperation with the U.S. in security, economic and energy issues. Abe is likely to continue to pursue those same partnerships, she said.
While foreign policy is at the forefront of this election, Smith also emphasized the election’s domestic significance.
“The economic direction chosen by the new government will be most decisive, and whether or not a real program of strengthening growth, creating jobs and fostering new technological innovation in Japan’s manufacturing sector can be achieved will be important,” she said.
The newly elected government must generate the sustained economic growth needed to contend with the country’s aging population while also helping it navigate its energy supply through a critical juncture.
“Whether a new government is cohesive enough to make decisions and what sorts of directions they will lead Japan in on these issues are both important for Japan’s future,” she said.
Photo: Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Sept. 16, 2012 (photo by Wikimedia user TTTNIS).
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