Legacy of war in Asia

Why China may not like Shinzo Abe’s choice for Japan’s next defence minister

Tomomi Inada is known for holding views similar to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on security and foreign policy issues, and has made regular visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which is seen by China and South Korea as a symbol of Japan’s militarist past

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2016, 3:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2016, 10:25pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is likely to pick ruling party policy chief Tomomi Inada as defence minister in a new cabinet, the Asahi newspaper and sources said on Tuesday, which could upset China and South Korea given her conservative views on wartime history.

Abe is set to reshuffle his cabinet on Wednesday, retaining several key ministers and picking a veteran lawmaker who favours big spending as ruling party number two.

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Inada, 57, is a close ally of Abe and shares his goal of revising the post-war, pacifist constitution, seen by some conservatives as a humiliating symbol of Japan’s second world war defeat. She regularly visits Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honours war dead and is seen in China and South Korea as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.

Inada is also among those who deny that the Japanese army forced women from across Asia into sexual slavery in the early decades of the last century.

Japan’s relations with both Beijing and Seoul have often been frayed by the legacy of Japan’s military aggression before and during the second world war.

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Inada served as minister for administrative reform in an earlier Abe cabinet before being appointed as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) policy chief in 2014.

If selected as defence minister, Inada would be the second woman in the post after Yuriko Koike, newly elected as Tokyo governor, briefly held the portfolio in 2007.

The reshuffle comes as Abe tries to rev up economic growth, handle multiple diplomatic challenges and eyes the possibility of staying in office after his term as ruling LDP president ends in 2018.

Abe is expected to travel to China in early September for a Group of 20 summit, where he may have a meeting with President Xi Jinping.

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Sino-Japanese ties have also been strained by a dispute over tiny isles in the East China Sea and China’s growing military assertiveness in the South China Sea.

On Tuesday Japan’s latest annual defence review expressed “deep concern” over what it sees as China’s coercion as a more assertive Beijing flouts international rules when dealing with other nations.

Japan’s Defence White Paper comes amid heightened tension in Asia less than a month after an arbitration court in the Hague invalidated China’s sweeping claims in the disputed South China Sea, in a case brought by the Philippines.

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China has refused to recognise the ruling. Japan called on China to adhere to the verdict, which it said was binding. Beijing retorted by warning Tokyo not to interfere.

In the defence review approved by Abe’s government, Japan warned that “unintended consequences” could result from Beijing’s assertive disregard of international rules.

“China is poised to fulfil its unilateral demands without compromise,” the government said in the review.

China claims most of the 3.5-million-square-km South China Sea, with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also staking claims.

Japan has no territorial claims there, but it fears that Chinese military bases will bolster Beijing’s influence over a region through which $5 trillion in trade passes every year, much of it to and from Japanese ports.

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Rather than confront China directly by sailing warships past its man-made island bases in the sea, Japan is providing equipment and training to the Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam, which are most opposed to China’s territorial ambitions.

Beijing’s most powerful adversary in Asia is the United States, with its Seventh Fleet operating from bases in Japan and South Korea. Japan has Asia’s second-biggest indigenous navy.. The defence review noted China’s growing capability to threaten naval vessels with its growing armoury of anti-ship missiles.

At 484 pages, Japan’s document is more than a tenth longer than last year’s report, and lays out other security concerns, such as the threat from neighbouring North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear bomb programmes and a revival of Russian military strength in the Far East.

It takes 50 pages to outline Japan’s deepening alliance with the United States, as Tokyo takes a step back from its war-renouncing constitution by easing curbs on overseas operations for its Self Defence Forces.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry on Tuesday summoned a senior Japanese Embassy official to protest Japan’s renewed claim over South Korea-controlled islets in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) in its annual defence white paper.

The ministry issued a statement in which it made it clear that the islets, known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea, are South Korean territory and expressed its strong protest with Japan’s “unjust claim of territorial sovereignty”.

Additional reporting by Kyodo