IDSA COMMENT

The Challenges Before Shinzo Abe

December 20, 2012

In the recent general election held in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) won 294 seats in a landslide victory while the ruling DPJ managed to win only 57 seats. As the President of LDP, Shinzo Abe is expected to become the next Prime Minister on December 26. The LDP and New Komeito, the two former coalition partners in the pre-2009 LDP-led governments, are expected to form another coalition government this time as well. Although the LDP and Komeito do not have a majority in the Upper House of the Diet - the House of Councilors – the two, with a combined 325 seats, do have a majority of seats in the Lower House - the House of Representatives. Their majority in the Lower House could be extremely handy as they can pass bills by voting them through a second time if they are voted down in the Upper House.

The new administration seems to have inherited a host of challenges (both in the domestic and international fronts) from the preceding DPJ-led government. On the domestic front, the new government has to primarily deal with deflation and hyper-appreciation of the yen. In order to boost the economy, the Abe administration plans to quickly compile a supplementary budget for fiscal 2013 worth several trillion yen and submit it to an ordinary diet session set to convene in late January 2013. As pledged during its election campaign, the LDP might also introduce bold monetary easing measures, including setting an annual inflation target and forming a policy accord with the Bank of Japan.

Constitution revision is likely to emerge as a subject of debate during Abe’s tenure. The LDP is reportedly considering to discuss with its coalition partner New Komeito the easing of requirements for amending the constitution as stipulated in Article 96. However, persuading the New Komeito on this issue might not be easy as it is quite cautious about the LDP’s possible future intention to revise Article 9 (the no war clause).

Nuclear energy will continue to dominate the domestic debates within Japan. The LDP has so far refrained from offering a clear-cut stance on the issue possibly due to strong popular sentiments about it. The LDP leadership has been very critical of the zero-nuclear policy proposed by the previous DPJ government. Since the Fukushima nuclear accident (March 2011), the operation of most nuclear reactors in Japan has remained suspended, which, according to the advocates of nuclear energy, has led to the acceleration of the industrial hollowing out process as well as the emergence of an unemployment problem. Therefore, under the LDP leadership, nuclear reactors in Japan might once again be activated (though only after their safety has been scientifically proved) to deal with the energy deficit. However, the LDP’s stance on nuclear energy continues to face criticism from various quarters. Right now, the party’s energy policy seems to lack a sense of urgency, as it talks about mapping out the country’s energy source structure over the next 10 years.

Rebuilding Japan’s foreign policy will be another challenge for the Abe Administration, especially in view of the rising tension between Japan and its neighbouring states - China and South Korea – over territorial disputes. As far as the Japan-US security alliance is concerned, it is expected to grow further. During the LDP’s more than five decades long rule before 2009, the party had maintained strong relations with the United States. The party is not likely to change its course now on this front. In fact, Abe’s expected visit to the United States in January 2013 clearly underlines the LDP’s continued faith in strong Japan-US bilateral ties. In the meantime, the party’s call for creating a “Basic Law on state security” to enable the nation to exercise its right to collective self defence is also expected to bolster Japan’s alliance with the United States. However, it remains to be seen how Abe is going to deal with issues such as the tension over the Futenma relocation, rising anti-US sentiments over growing crimes involving US servicemen in Okinawa, etc.

As far as China is concerned, the LDP leadership seems to take a non-assertive stance at present, in spite of the fact that the spat over the Senkaku islands has recently reached a new height with the constant intrusion of Chinese surveillance ships into Japanese waters followed by the intrusion of a Chinese airplane into Japanese airspace on December 13. In fact, LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura has stressed on the need to re-establish the ‘mutually beneficial strategic partnership’ that both countries agreed on during Shinzo Abe’s tenure as Prime Minister in 2006-2007. Abe himself seems to be trying to assuage Chinese concerns over his hawkish image by insisting that Sino-Japanese relations are “one of the most important bilateral relationships.” He has also pledged to make efforts towards improving bilateral ties. China, however, does not seem to be convinced. In fact, a lot of Chinese media reports seem to warn China against Abe’s hawkish stance and urge the Chinese leadership to closely monitor the new leadership’s stance on Yasukuni Shrine visits, the Senkaku island dispute and amendment of the pacifist Constitution.

North Korea’s nuclear weapon programme is going to be another major challenge for the Abe Administration. Japan already faces a serious security challenge due to the North’s deployment of intermediate range ballistic missiles with a range of 1300 kilometres that directly targets Japan. Moreover, the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the pre-Cold War era too might emerge as another major cause of friction between the two countries. While Pyongyang insists that the issue has already been resolved, Tokyo believes that as long as the North does not share adequate information with Japan on the abductees, bilateral relations could not be normalized.

Implications of an Abe Administration on Japan-South Korea relations remain largely uncertain particularly when South Korea itself is going for a leadership change following the presidential election on December 19. During the current Lee Myung-bak’s Administration, Japan’s relations with South Korea became severely strained. The prime candidates for the South Korean presidency are Park Geun-hye from the ruling Saenuri Party and Moon Jae-In from the main opposition Democratic United Party. Since Park’s father, former South Korean leader Park Chung Hee, paved the way for normalizing the South Korea-Japan relations in the post-war period, it is being hoped by many that bilateral relations might improve if she were to be elected to power. However, if election results go in favour of the leftists led by Moon Jae-In who advocates adoption of the conciliatory “Sunshine Policy” towards North Korea, then bilateral relations might deteriorate further, because Moon might follow in the footsteps of former President Roh who took an unyielding hard-line stance against Japan. At the same time, it also remains undeniably true that even if Park assumes the presidency, mending ties between Tokyo and Seoul would still be complicated considering that Park, like Moon, takes an uncompromising stance on certain issues such as the dispute over the Takeshima island issue.

Nevertheless, the recent launch of the long-range ballistic missile by North Korea might propel South Korea, Japan and the United States to join hands to deal with the hermit kingdom. With the launch, the North has reportedly been able to extend the range of its missiles. This has heightened tension in the Korean Peninsula as well as in neighbouring areas, including Japan. According to the South Korean Defence Minister Kim Kwan Jin, the missile had a range of 10000 kilometres and thus has the capability of reaching the US West Coast. Since the 1980s, North Korea’s deployment of more than 600 Scud missiles with a range of 300-500 kilometres has constantly threatened South Korea’s security. Though in October 2012, the United States and South Korea agreed to extend the firing range of the latter’s ballistic missiles from 300 to 800 kilometres to include all of North Korea, this does not seem to be enough keeping in mind Pyongyang’s continued assertive behaviour and unpredictability. The recent missile launch clearly indicated the challenges both Japan and South Korea continue to face with respect to intelligence gathering capabilities. So here the two countries, along with the United States, can join hands to deal with future security challenges posed by North Korea. The North’s nuclear programme might also pave the way for the signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and finalization of the military-related Acquisition and Cross Servicing agreement (ACSA) between Japan and South Korea.

In the meantime, Japan’s participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral FTA is going to be another thorny issue to handle for the Abe administration. As many LDP leaders have strong reservations against this arrangement, the LDP has refrained from going into specifics. However while initially taking the stance of “opposing the TPP as long as negotiations are premised on the elimination of all tariffs without exception,” Abe now seems to be taking a different view by suggesting recently that the TPP talks “should be a matter of course if the national interests can be safeguarded.”

So far, the implications of Shinzo Abe’s assumption of power on Japan’s bilateral relations with its neighbouring states largely remain uncertain. Still, it remains undeniably true that historical acrimonies among Japan, China and South Korea have been a major hurdle preventing them from charting a more stable and prosperous future. If only they decide to leave aside the historical baggage and sincerely try to make some compromises with each other, they will be able to normalize their relationship in the long run. While keeping that in mind, Prime Minister Abe needs to shed his hawkish image and shoulder the responsibility of developing friendly relationships with neighbouring states to be truly regarded as a visionary leader in East Asia.