Shinzo Abe’s nationalist push could easily heighten tension in the region
- The next phase of the Japanese PM’s agenda cannot be done without considering his country’s past and the economic and political environment
Japan’s China policy is one of hedging – balancing dialogue and deterrence. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strategy is to combine diplomatic and economic engagement with Beijing while building up Japanese military capability to show strength and as a safeguard against the uncertainty of the security alliance with the United States. It is an approach that requires semantic gymnastics, as highlighted by a proposal to convert flat-topped vessels carrying helicopters to take jet fighters and referring to them as “multi-purpose destroyers” rather than aircraft carriers. But as much as nationalists in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are eager to reshape the country’s pacifist constitution to enable power projection, they have to be mindful of how the region will respond to their actions.
Japan has been driven closer to China by US President Donald Trump’s threat to impose trade tariffs and rejection of multilateralism. His order to the Pentagon in May to look into reducing troop strength in South Korea has created uncertainty about the continued US military presence in Japan. But even though icy relations have thawed, with President Xi Jinping and Abe having met in October and Tokyo embracing the “Belt and Road Initiative”, unease over China’s rise remains strong. It is wary of Chinese intentions in the region, concerns being focused on military jets and warships entering contested airspace and waters in the East China Sea, and a perceived continued threat from North Korea.
Japan had the world’s most powerful fleet of aircraft carriers during the early years of the second world war and they were behind bombing raids on China, Australia and Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. There is understandable concern in Asia, which bore the brunt of Japanese imperial aggression, that lawmakers last Tuesday approved draft defence guidelines expected to be adopted by the government this week that “enable fighter jets to be operated from existing warships, if necessary, to improve the flexibility of their operation”. That would involve refitting the destroyer Izumo to allow the carrying of F35B fighter bombers. Abe says the reforms are necessary to enable Japan to respond more quickly and effectively to security challenges.
The decision came two days before the 81st anniversary of the Nanking massacre, in which 300,000 Chinese were killed by Japanese troops. Japan’s brutal invasion and occupation of China, Korea and other Asian countries still rankles. Abe’s embarking on the next phase of his nationalist agenda cannot be done without considering his country’s past and the economic and political environment. He could too easily heighten tension, spur a new regional arms race and increase military risks.