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Tokyo to Take a Tougher Line With China

John Lee

The resounding victory by Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, led by Shinzo Abe, is more a vote against the incumbent Democratic Party of Japan than it is for the L.D.P. Even so, the perception that Abe’s forthright and confident approach breaks the mold of the consensus-based bureaucratic style of many Japanese leaders will please many voters and Japan’s security partners in the region.

This sentiment will not be replicated in Beijing. There is a groundswell of opinion within Japan that Tokyo should no longer be cowed by Chinese regional assertiveness. For many Japanese, Abe is the one willing to stand up to Japan’s larger neighbor.

Japan’s deep history of rivalry and conflict with China is well known. Part of this is currently being played out in the dispute over the Japanese administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Of major concern is the realization that Beijing is prepared to link political and strategic issues with economic reward and punishment.

In September, China’s vice minister for commerce, Jiang Zengwei, officially sanctioned and encouraged the boycott of Japanese goods and companies—particularly cars and electronic products. Chinese-based travel agencies were leaned upon to cancel or postpone tours to Japan, leading to a 33 percent fall in Chinese tourist numbers to Japan in October. Japanese companies such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Panasonic reported damage to their operations and property as thousands of Chinese staged anti-Japanese protests. It would be unthinkable that these demonstrations occurred without the authorities having previous knowledge that they would occur.

Beijing’s willingness to use trade as a strategic or political lever was deployed against Japan in 2010 over the same dispute when China halted the exports of rare earths to its neighbor. Beijing has behaved similarly to other countries, most recently when China temporarily halted the import of bananas from the Philippines due to the dispute over the Scarborough Shoal, threatening 200,000 Filipino jobs.

When Abe was prime minister from September 2006 to September 2007, he broke the contemporary tradition of softly-softly approaches to disputes with China. He was the personal driving force behind the now defunct Quadrilateral Initiative, a strategic partnership framework agreement between Japan, the United States, India and Australia. The initiative established the foundation for enhanced strategic cooperation and naval exercises among the four democratic powers. Formed at a time when regional states were still uncritically accepting the self-proclaimed rhetoric of China’s rise, the initiative was premature and a little too provocative. Abe also argued for an enhanced strategic partnership with India. He was not backward about declaring that these proposals were all about retraining Chinese ambition and behavior—probably the first modern Asian leader to openly say so.

Even in the lead-up to the recent election, Abe has been frank in saying that he will pursue an assertive alliance strategy, and in particular the deepening of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Concluding a security alliance with Australia would also presumably be high on his to-do list. Abe has also indicated that he would re-examine the self-imposed restriction that Japan spend no more than 1 percent of G.D.P. on defense. There are even indications that he would consider supplementing Japan’s highly impressive defensive military capabilities with formidable offensive military assets such as ballistic missiles, strategic bombers and amphibious units. If so, this could necessitate a “reinterpretation” of Article 9 of the country’s pacifist Constitution.

To be sure, Abe’s first priority is reversing signs of deflation in the economy. But many will fear a deterioration of China-Japan relations, with uncertain economic repercussions for trade between the two countries and the region. If deterioration in the bilateral political and economic relationship in fact occurs, a more assertive Abe government may not be to blame. After all, when the center-left Democratic Party candidate, Yukio Hatoyama, rose to power in June 2009, Tokyo pursued a much more lenient line toward Beijing. Never a supporter of the U.S. naval base Okinawa, Hatoyama declared that Japan should put less emphasis on the U.S. alliance and more effort into an exclusive East Asian economic and strategic zone—underpinned by closer strategic relations between Japan and China.

Beijing’s diplomats applauded the softer Japanese line. But it preceded a year—2010—when China pushed its weight around, picking fights with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and Australia—causing the entire region to question the credibility of China’s self-proclaimed peaceful rise.

Beijing’s aggressive behavior over disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea may well be unrelated to Hatoyama’s softer approach. But Tokyo’s conciliatory line certainly didn’t temper Beijing’s behavior then, and even the outgoing center-left Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda toughened his stance against China.

Abe is nothing if not consistent. His calculation is that China will offer few economic favors or strategic concessions to a meek Japan. At the least, a stronger, firmer posture will certainly do no harm. And the gamble is that it may even cause Beijing to think twice about the cost of pushing its military and economic weight around East and Southeast Asia.

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