The magnitude of the public’s rejection of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) trumped poll predictions and resulted in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by Shinzo Abe, wresting total control of the Lower House.
The LDP along with its ally, the Komeito Party, won 325 seats in the election, giving it a “supermajority” of two-thirds of the total representatives. This will effectively allow Abe to override any vetoes from the Upper House of the Japanese Diet, which is still led by the DPJ.
The LDP has been given a strong mandate largely as a result of Japan’s economic malaise during the DPJ’s three-year reign. However, the rebirth of the LDP and Abe, who served as prime minister in 2006-2007, has significant foreign policy implications, in particular for Japan’s role in Asia.
Abe has been branded by the foreign press as a “nationalist” and “hard-liner” due to his conservative policy stances on North Korea and Japan’s territorial disputes with China, South Korea and Russia.
However, while Abe’s position on these disputes may be less ambiguous than Noda’s, he will face the same vexing challenges as his DPJ predecessor in addressing them. As a result, he is likely to adopt a tempered and strategic approach to relations with the region.
Amid recent tensions with Tokyo over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, claimed by China as the Diaoyu, Beijing is concerned that the LDP victory could have an adverse effect on bilateral relations.
South Korea, which elected its first female president, Park Geun hye, yesterday, is also carefully watching developments in Tokyo with an eye to how this may affect its fractured bilateral relationship with Japan.
In particular, both Beijing and Seoul are concerned about Abe’s defiance of their protests regarding visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s World War II war dead, including some war criminals. Abe visited the shrine as recently as October, as leader of the opposition. The symbolism of the Yasukuni visits, however, will be magnified once Abe becomes prime minister, and he will need to weigh more carefully the risks involved in making future trips.
Abe’s approach to Japan’s territorial disputes will also be an imposing challenge. In policy speeches leading up to the election, he indicated his firm view regarding Japan’s sovereignty over not only the Senkaku, but also the Takeshima Islands (Japanese-administered but claimed by South Korea as the Dokdo) and the Russian-administered Southern Kuril Islands(claimed by Japan as the Northern Territories).
At the LDP victory rally Sunday, Abe was equally unequivocal, stating, “The [Senkakus are] the inherent territory of Japan. . . . There is no room for negotiations about that.” It will be important to watch how this rhetoric is informed by Abe’s stated intention to revise the role of Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF), which would provide a credible “silent hand” to any diplomatic efforts to resolving the disputes.
The dynamic geopolitical landscape in East Asia is also compelling Japan to adapt its force posture to new realities.
In previous years, Japan had positioned the SDF predominantly on its northern island of Hokkaido, as a result of tensions with North Korea and, to a lesser extent, Russia. That has changed, with the majority of the SDF now repositioned to the southern islands. Defense spending is another priority. Japan currently caps spending on defense to 1 percent of its GDP. However, there is significant pressure, both internally and externally, for Tokyo to increase this amount in light of new responsibilities. Abe has also placed a strong emphasis on even greater defense cooperation with the U.S.
But despite the LDP’s more pointed approach to these hot-button issues, it is unlikely that Japan will alter its core strategy of increased economic engagement with China, South Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). After his victory, Abe noted, “China is an indispensable country for the Japanese economy to keep growing. Japan needs to use some wisdom so that political problems will not develop and affect economic issues.”
Japan’s economy is often overlooked when compared with China, which surged past Japan last year to become the world’s second-largest economy, and South Korea, which has inked significant free trade agreements with the United States and the European Union.
However, Tokyo has taken a proactive approach in this area in recent years, signing Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with India, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines. Japan is also in current EPA negotiations with regional heavyweights South Korea and Australia.
There is a growing narrative that portrays Japan as being in permanent decline, unable to compete with Asia’s young and dynamic markets. This view is overly simplistic. While Japan has significant demographic pressures (a low birth rate and a high proportion of pensioners) and economic challenges (high debt and low growth), the country continues to innovate and be an important part of the supply chain in Asia.
China’s economy relies primarily on manufacturing, and despite Beijing’s sparring with Tokyo, China needs Japan’s foreign direct investment and niche technological products to complete its exports. Similarly, as ASEAN grows, it will continue to rely on Japan as a secure player in the global supply chain. ASEAN will also stay close to Japan for geopolitical reasons as it looks to hedge against China.
It will be an immense challenge, however, for Abe and the LDP to leverage and enhance this role to position Japan for a prosperous and secure future in Asia. Abe’s intention to separate politics from economics with regard to Japan’s territorial disputes is laudable, but maintaining this course will be increasingly challenging over the coming months.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Researcher and Author