Love him or loathe him, there is no denying that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a consummate politician who has sensed that public sentiment is sufficiently with him that he will once again win a general election.
And while the electorate may express concern about a stagnant economy, shortages of places at kindergartens or any number of quibbles about everyday life, there is one issue that largely binds Japan’s voters together.
Abe will fend off all-comers at the general election on October 22 because the average Japanese is genuinely fearful of an unpredictable but increasingly belligerent North Korea. Extensive media coverage – often more than a little alarmist – has convinced the public that Abe is the only political leader sufficiently resolute and experienced to handle a regime that has nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and – possibly – the will to use them.
Inevitably, there are also implications for Japan’s relationship with China going forward, although it is considered likely that while Beijing is no fan of many of Abe’s hawkish tendencies, the Chinese government favours a steady hand on the tiller in administrations in the region in a time of crisis rather than upheaval and additional uncertainty.
“It is largely thanks to North Korea that Abe is doing so well at the moment,” said Steven Reed, a professor at Chuo University who specialises in Japanese political parties and elections.
“At a time of military and diplomatic difficulties, people want stability and someone they can rely on,” he said. “Abe is the only political leader in Japan who has that experience and the public here is not willing to put its collective future in the hands of someone who is untested.”
As evidence, Reed points out that the prime minister’s support rate is presently significantly above the 50 per cent mark. As recently as mid-July, Abe had been beset with scandals surrounding his alleged interference in decisions at the ministry of education involving two close acquaintances applying to expand their businesses, and the swirling rumours had hurt him.
According to an opinion poll in the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper that month, Abe’s support rate sank to a low of 26 per cent and analysts were preparing their political obituaries. Then Kim Jong-un intervened.
The following month, North Korea threatened to fire four missiles into waters close to Guam – which would necessarily take them over Japan – then followed that up by launching an intermediate-range ballistic missile over northern prefectures of the country. In September, Pyongyang carried out its largest ever underground nuclear test and then, just days later, sent another missile over northern Japan.
And, due in part to goading and name-calling by the leaders of both the United States and North Korea, there are no signs that the crisis has passed yet.
Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University, says Abe has “played the North Korea card very astutely”. “He has demonstrated strong leadership in dealing with North Korea to the Japanese people and emphasised again and again the security relationship with the United States.
“And Donald Trump has reciprocated, even mentioning in his recent speech to the United Nations the Japanese nationals who have been abducted by North Korean agents,” he said. “That is a very emotional issue to the Japanese and will have played well here.
Abe has also won support on North Korea from the European Union, which has recently stepped up its sanctions, Nagy points out, which the Japanese public appreciates. At the same time, however, Abe has resisted the temptation to be inflammatory in his responses to the actions of the regime in Pyongyang – something that not all international leaders have been able to do – while the Japanese military has not attempted to intercept North Korea’s missiles, even when they were flying over Japanese territory.
“That shows restraint and steady leadership and plays well with the voters, but also with other international partners in the region,” Nagy added.
Given the geopolitical argy-bargy of the last decade or so, it is difficult to see China and Japan as partners, although there appears to have been some detente between Beijing and Tokyo so far this year.
“It seems to me the feelings of China have been tempered somewhat since 2012,” said Garren Mulloy, a defence expert and associate professor of international relations at Japan’s Daito Bunka University.
“When Abe came back for his second administration in December of that year, he was portrayed in China as a terrible leader for Japan, a man who would make it his business to repeal the Yoshida Doctrine [which focuses on economic growth and minimised defence spending] and Article 9 of the constitution – but that really has not happened.
“There have been lots of reforms to security legislation and posture, but it has been a long way short of the rampant, nationalistic agenda that many in Japan – and probably in China – expected,” Mulloy said.
In many ways, Abe still serves as a convenient scapegoat for the Chinese government, Mulloy believes, given that the two nations are never going to agree on the number of people who died in the Rape of Nanjing, whether the “comfort women” were coerced into providing sex for Japanese troops before and during the second world war or who owns the Diaoyu Islands, which are marked on Japanese maps as the Senkaku archipelago. “To have someone that they can portray as being nationalist and extremely right-wing can be helpful to Beijing,” Mulloy said.
Barring an unforeseen bilateral incident in the meantime, the next exchange of harsh words between Beijing and Tokyo is likely to come when Japan announces that it is pushing ahead with plans to deploy Aegis Ashore missile systems. Designed to intercept inbound ballistic missiles, one of the systems is expected to be located in northwest Japan, facing North Korea, but there are suggestions that the second unit will be based in Kyushu, from where it could provide cover from threats from far further to the south.
“I think China will probably protest, but not as strongly as in the past as they know that the situation with North Korea has changed in the last five years and that Japan has to do something to protect its citizens from missiles flying overhead,” Mulloy added.
And, in the short-term at least, he anticipates a willingness between the two governments to put rivalries to one side. “The reasons for the antagonism still remain, but none of them are critical at this juncture and neither side is prioritising them,” he said. “Chinese ships are still entering Japan’s exclusive economic zones around the Senkaku islands and Chinese aircraft are flying through the area, but not with the same frequency as a couple of years ago.
“And that is almost certainly because there is so much else going on in the region that needs to be managed.”
And while there is no sign of the North Korea situation being resolved any time in the immediate future, there is an assumption that once that factor is eliminated from the regional equation then the focus will once again swing back to Sino-Japanese economic and territorial rivalries. It is, however, unlikely that Abe will still be the prime minister when that comes to pass. ■
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