Shinzo Abe must get his priorities right

Amending Japan’s pacifist constitution should not even be on his to-do list; instead, he should work on improving relations with China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 9:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 2:52pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated while campaigning for re-election as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party his goal of amending the country’s pacifist constitution. His victory paves the way for a record-setting premiership and the opportunity to make his wish reality. But Japan’s neighbours and the majority of its people oppose what some contend is a plan to remilitarise and that the nation has pressing economic and social matters to deal with. Rather than jeopardise warming relations with China and his domestic political standing, he should shelve the idea and instead use his final term in office to push ahead with priorities.

High among important issues to be dealt with is US President Donald Trump’s claim that Japanese trade with his country is unfair. The contention is the same for China and is one reason Chinese and Japanese relations are improving. President Xi Jinping met Abe on the sidelines of an economic forum in Vladivostok on September 12 and the prime minister is expected to visit Beijing next month on the 40th anniversary of their nations’ peace and friendship treaty. Suggestions that plans to begin changing the constitution could begin within weeks to assure a 2020 deadline would be short-sighted.

There is nothing pressing about the proposed amendment to Article 9 of the US-imposed 1947 charter, dictating that Japan can only have a self-defence force. Abe has long sought to change the terms, which force Japan to “forever renounce war” and outlaws maintaining armed forces. China and other countries in the region have a right to be worried given that the prime minister is a nationalist whose right-wing supporters whitewash the country’s history of wartime aggression. He has already changed laws so that Japanese armed forces can join allies in overseas combat missions.

Opinion polls clearly show what Japanese expect their government to focus on. Improving the economy is seen as the priority, followed by pension reform, medical services, national security and diplomacy and fiscal reconstruction. Abe has won support for his diplomatic efforts and handling of a series of natural disasters and been re-elected despite cronyism and cover-up scandals. But amending the constitution is not a popular issue, as surveys repeatedly show, and any changes would have to be put to a national referendum.

Abe and Trump meet in the United States next Wednesday, but the American leader’s hardline stance on trade and unpredictability means Japan would be better served by increasing cooperation with China. Xi and Abe are proponents of free trade and their nations’ economies are complementary. As he begins his final term, the prime minister would be wise to get his priorities right.