The Challenges Facing Japan's Shinzo Abe

By Pranamita Baruah
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As far as China is concerned, the LDP leadership seems to take a non-assertive stance at present, in spite of the fact that the spat over the Senkaku islands has recently reached a new height with the constant intrusion of Chinese surveillance ships into Japanese waters followed by the intrusion of a Chinese airplane into Japanese airspace on December 13. In fact, LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura has stressed on the need to re-establish the ‘mutually beneficial strategic partnership' that both countries agreed on during Shinzo Abe's tenure as Prime Minister in 2006-2007. Abe himself seems to be trying to assuage Chinese concerns over his hawkish image by insisting that Sino-Japanese relations are "one of the most important bilateral relationships." He has also pledged to make efforts towards improving bilateral ties. China, however, does not seem to be convinced. In fact, a lot of Chinese media reports seem to warn China against Abe's hawkish stance and urge the Chinese leadership to closely monitor the new leadership's stance on Yasukuni Shrine visits, the Senkaku island dispute and amendment of the pacifist Constitution.

North Korea's nuclear weapon programme is going to be another major challenge for the Abe Administration. Japan already faces a serious security challenge due to the North's deployment of intermediate range ballistic missiles with a range of 1300 kilometres that directly targets Japan. Moreover, the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the pre-Cold War era too might emerge as another major cause of friction between the two countries. While Pyongyang insists that the issue has already been resolved, Tokyo believes that as long as the North does not share adequate information with Japan on the abductees, bilateral relations could not be normalized.

Implications of an Abe Administration on Japan-South Korea relations remain largely uncertain particularly when South Korea itself is going for a leadership change following the presidential election on December 19. During the current Lee Myung-bak's Administration, Japan's relations with South Korea became severely strained. The prime candidates for the South Korean presidency are Park Geun-hye from the ruling Saenuri Party and Moon Jae-In from the main opposition Democratic United Party. Since Park's father, former South Korean leader Park Chung Hee, paved the way for normalizing the South Korea-Japan relations in the post-war period, it is being hoped by many that bilateral relations might improve if she were to be elected to power. However, if election results go in favour of the leftists led by Moon Jae-In who advocates adoption of the conciliatory "Sunshine Policy" towards North Korea, then bilateral relations might deteriorate further, because Moon might follow in the footsteps of former President Roh who took an unyielding hard-line stance against Japan. At the same time, it also remains undeniably true that even if Park assumes the presidency, mending ties between Tokyo and Seoul would still be complicated considering that Park, like Moon, takes an uncompromising stance on certain issues such as the dispute over the Takeshima island issue.

Nevertheless, the recent launch of the long-range ballistic missile by North Korea might propel South Korea, Japan and the United States to join hands to deal with the hermit kingdom. With the launch, the North has reportedly been able to extend the range of its missiles. This has heightened tension in the Korean Peninsula as well as in neighbouring areas, including Japan. According to the South Korean Defence Minister Kim Kwan Jin, the missile had a range of 10000 kilometres and thus has the capability of reaching the US West Coast. Since the 1980s, North Korea's deployment of more than 600 Scud missiles with a range of 300-500 kilometres has constantly threatened South Korea's security. Though in October 2012, the United States and South Korea agreed to extend the firing range of the latter's ballistic missiles from 300 to 800 kilometres to include all of North Korea, this does not seem to be enough keeping in mind Pyongyang's continued assertive behaviour and unpredictability. The recent missile launch clearly indicated the challenges both Japan and South Korea continue to face with respect to intelligence gathering capabilities. So here the two countries, along with the United States, can join hands to deal with future security challenges posed by North Korea. The North's nuclear programme might also pave the way for the signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and finalization of the military-related Acquisition and Cross Servicing agreement (ACSA) between Japan and South Korea.

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In the meantime, Japan's participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral FTA is going to be another thorny issue to handle for the Abe administration. As many LDP leaders have strong reservations against this arrangement, the LDP has refrained from going into specifics. However while initially taking the stance of "opposing the TPP as long as negotiations are premised on the elimination of all tariffs without exception," Abe now seems to be taking a different view by suggesting recently that the TPP talks "should be a matter of course if the national interests can be safeguarded."

So far, the implications of Shinzo Abe's assumption of power on Japan's bilateral relations with its neighbouring states largely remain uncertain. Still, it remains undeniably true that historical acrimonies among Japan, China and South Korea have been a major hurdle preventing them from charting a more stable and prosperous future. If only they decide to leave aside the historical baggage and sincerely try to make some compromises with each other, they will be able to normalize their relationship in the long run. While keeping that in mind, Prime Minister Abe needs to shed his hawkish image and shoulder the responsibility of developing friendly relationships with neighbouring states to be truly regarded as a visionary leader in East Asia.

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Originally published by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://idsa.in/idsacomments/TheChallengesBeforeShinzoAbe_pbaruah_201212.

(AP Photo)

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