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Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), currently in the opposition, went back to the future last month when it choose former prime minister Shinzo Abe as its new leader. Mr. Abe served barely a year as premier before resigning in September 2007 due to poor health, plus political paralysis within government that lowered his popularity. Ever since, he has been plotting a comeback. A general election stands between him and the premiership, and to regain power, Mr. Abe knows he must out-hawk current Premier Yoshihiko Noda on foreign policy.
Japan must hold a general election by August 2013. While domestic issues, including the never-ending economic stagnation, will play a role, mounting concerns about the country’s regional isolation—and serious tensions with China and South Korea—are propelling foreign policy to the forefront. Here, both Messrs. Noda and Abe are vying to burnish their hardline credentials, which means, one way or another, Tokyo’s foreign policy will turn more conservative.
Prime Minister Noda has proven himself the most capable of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leaders since the LDP lost power in 2009. He has largely repaired the breach with the United States caused by former premier Yukio Hatoyama, also of the DPJ, who blundered into a crisis over the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps Air Station on Okinawa.
More significantly, he has made some important decisions to strengthen defenses. His administration chose the stealth F-35 as Japan’s next-generation fighter, while moving to revise the long-standing arms export ban that largely prevented Tokyo from co-developing weapons systems and mired the country’s defense industry in inefficiency. He also approved the release of a new strategic vision for Japan that identifies China as the major security threat on the horizon.
Indeed, it is in his response to China’s continued assertiveness that Mr. Noda has made his mark. He has always been a China hawk, and he solidified that image by rushing to buy several of the disputed Senkaku Islands this summer, in response to Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s plan to purchase them. This set off a serious confrontation with China, the second major one since 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese coastguard vessels.
Unlike in 2010, though, Mr. Noda has pushed back forcefully against Beijing’s pressure. He dispatched 50 Coast Guard cutters to the islands, refused to surrender Japan’s claims of ownership, and bluntly warned China that its economy would suffer from a worsened tussle with Japan. With these actions, Mr. Noda may well have wrested the laurel of security credibility from the more conservative LDP.
Not to be outdone, Mr. Abe has stepped back into the spotlight. He has applauded his DPJ rival’s actions in the Senkakus. At the same time, he is also seeing Mr. Noda’s bet and raising it, by returning to three key proposals that formed the bulk of his security policy back in 2006-07.
The first is to revise the ban on collective self-defense, which would allow Japan to come to the aid of other countries and become a more reliable alliance partner for the U.S. Mr. Abe said last week that “an alliance not backed by trust is nothing but a scrap of paper,” underscoring both the damage the DPJ earlier did to U.S.-Japan relations as well as the DPJ’s retreat from a more forward-leaning foreign policy.
Next, Mr. Abe said he will revive the idea of organizing a formal National Security Council. Japan currently uses ad-hoc mechanisms to coordinate and execute security policies, and the country is weakened by the lack of a large staff and both parties’ traditional failure to appoint knowledgeable specialists to leading positions.
Mr. Abe is also likely to push for a strengthened military with an expanded global role. During his last stint in power, he made the postwar Defense Agency into a full ministry. This time around, he has voiced support for the U.S. Marines to introduce the MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft in Okinawa. He also reportedly told local television that he would consider renaming the Self-Defense Forces to more accurately reflect their status as an actual military.
The stakes are high if Tokyo’s ties with Beijing or Seoul get frostier, so chances are both Messrs. Noda and Abe will eventually aim to repair relations. Yet their mano-a-mano statements indicate that they will try to do so from a position of strength, and not by backing down on what they consider Japanese interests. Critics are already warning that Mr. Abe’s nationalism will engender further tension in East Asia, but Mr. Noda’s surprise purchase of the Senkakus is perhaps the most destabilizing foreign action by a Japanese prime minister in recent memory.
Whoever becomes Japan’s next leader is likely to continue the country’s conservative stance on foreign and security issues. While that may well lead to further problems with Japan’s neighbors, it also may be the most realistic path in a region that is unwilling to accept Japanese apologies for World War II, refuses to develop normal relations with Tokyo, and abets Japan’s natural sense of isolation.
Mr. Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin
As elections loom, Shinzo Abe tries to outflank Prime Minister Noda with tougher security talk.
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