Japan’s New Leader Faces Old Problems with China and South Korea

Japan’s New Leader Faces Old Problems with China and South Korea

The new prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, faces the difficult task of mending frayed relations with China and South Korea. Experts say that Abe has made initial progress, but the North Korea nuclear test presents new challenges for northeast Asian relations.

October 16, 2006 3:37 pm (EST)

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Shinzo Abe took the helm from Junichiro Koizumi in September as Japanese prime minister during a period of chilling relations with Beijing and Seoul, due to China and South Korea’s memory of brutal Japanese aggression in the region during the decades leading up to Hiroshima. Koizumi’s official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors several Class A war criminals along with about 2.5 million war casualties, had revived memories of Japan’s World War Two-era brutalities in China and South Korea. In recent months, then–cabinet chief Abe’s emergence as the favored candidate for the premiership by the governing Liberal Democratic Party did little to calm Chinese and South Korean fears. The right-leaning leader has been unapologetic about his country’s history, and he supported the revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution. Also, he has not concealed his affection for his deceased grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, a Japanese prime minister after the war, in spite of a war crime indictment. But experts say that the North Korean nuclear test announcement, which came within weeks of Abe taking office, presented the three countries with an opportunity to forge common ground in handling the crisis. Abe’s first official visits, to Seoul and Beijing, prompted hopes that he would bring a new commitment to improving relations with Japan’s important neighbors.

What is the impact of the North Korean nuclear test on Japanese relations with China and South Korea?

In the short term, North Korea’s nuclear test offers the three countries a shared problem and a reason to seek mutual solutions. Richard C. Bush III, director of Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, says the three countries’ positions are “closer than they would otherwise be.” Japan adopted strict unilateral sanctions against North Korea and, according to Bush, “has had to move the least” in terms of its stance, given that Pyongyang confirmed Tokyo’s fears about the Kim Jong-Il regime. China, an historic ally of the Communist country, agreed to UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, and South Korea condemned the test even while experiencing intense domestic debate over the warming “sunshine policy” towards its neighbor since the late 1990s.

The long-term impact of the test on Northeast relations remains unclear, but one of the greatest concerns for Japan, China, and South Korea is that it could lead to a northeast Asian arms race. Within days of the October 9, 2006, test, Abe stated that Japan would not build nuclear weapons, and David C. Kang, a Northeast Asia expert at Dartmouth College, says, “Japan would gain almost nothing by going nuclear” because of the protection granted by its strong alliance with the United States. But David B. H. Denoon, a professor of politics and economics at New York University and a former U.S.deputy assistant secretary of defense, says that additional North Korean testing “could well create momentum inside Japan for either nuclear weapons or a move toward an attack capability.” China is already a nuclear power. South Korea,like Japan , falls under the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, but in 2004 it revealed that it had experimented with uranium enrichment, which violated international agreements since South Korea did not declare this activity to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

What role does Abe’s nationalism play in relations with China and South Korea?

If handled deftly, Abe’s conservative leanings may benefit Tokyo’s relations with China and South Korea. Shortly after taking office, Abe headed to Beijing and Seoul for Japan’s high-level summits, previously boycotted by both countries due to Koizumi’s shrine visits. Michael Swaine, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Abe “is using his nationalism in a similar way that [former U.S. President Richard] Nixon used his conservative credentials in opening up relations with China .” Abe’s decision to visit China and South Korea before visiting the United States, Japan’s stronger ally, paved the way for renewed relations between the three countries despite Abe’s continued ambiguity on issues such as the Yasukuni shrine. By calling the meetings in the first weeks of his premiership, Abe is “distancing himself in a way from Koizumi,” says Kang. Kang also points out that the nature of Abe’s direct relations with China’s Premier Hu Jintao and South Korea’s President Roh Moo Hyun remained unclear after the summits because the three countries dealt with the more immediate anxiety of the North Korean nuclear test announcement.

How do Japanese military aspirations affect relations with China and South Korea?

Before becoming prime minister, Abe made clear that, in addition to improving relations with Beijing and Seoul, his main goal was to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution adopted after World War II, which places restrictions on the country’s military. The current charter includes Article Nine, which limits Japan’s ability to maintain an offensive military or to become involved in international conflicts, and confines their troops to a self-defense operation (SDF).  In a move that some say violated the constitution, Koizumi sent noncombat Japanese troops abroad, for the first time since World War II, to support U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Through constitutional reform, Abe hopes to broaden Japan’s ability to deploy troops for international peacekeeping purposes and to support its allies. This requires a two-thirds vote in the lower house and a majority vote by the Japanese public. The North Korean test has not changed Abe’s goal, and it bolsters his chances for changing the constitution.

Tokyo is suspicious of Beijing’s rapidly expanding and modernizing military, which spent almost twice as much as Japan on its defense budget in 2005, according to CIA figures. In return, the size of Tokyo’s military budget—the fourth largest in the world—stokes the fears of the Chinese and South Koreans, who are loathe to forget Japan’s aggressive imperialism before World War II. Abe hinted that Beijing should promote a better view of Japan’s history, as well as Tokyo’s status as China’s main donor, says Swaine. “All of these facts are inadequately conveyed in China by the Chinese government.”

What are the main obstacles to improved relations?

On top of military-buildup concerns, several obstacles could dog Japanese relations with China and South Korea during Abe’s administration. Problems include:

  • Yasakuni Shrine visits. Abe defended the shrine visits before gaining the premiership. He has been vague about whether he will continue Koizumi’s annual official trip to the controversial memorial, which enshrines fourteen Class A war criminals along with 2.5 million war casualties. The adjoining museum provides a glossed-over perspective of Japanese atrocities committed against China and South Korea. Even if opposition from Beijing doesn’t stop Abe from visiting the memorial, Japanese public opinion could.
  • Japan’s historical perspective and growing pride. New Japanese textbooks omitting Japanese wartime atrocities committed against China and South Korea sparked protests in both countries in recent years. Abe backs the use of these textbooks and supports teaching a stronger sense of Japanese patriotism in public schools. Such moves may anger Beijing and Seoul, but Kang says that as long as the Chinese Communist Party is in power “we’ll never have any genuine reassessment of history” because the communist country fails to discuss its own brutal history.
  • Territorial disputes. Japan has separate land disputes with both China, over drilling for resources in the East China Sea, and South Korea, over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, an area for fishing and possible underground energy resources. In April, South Korea sent out warships to protect Japanese ships from surveying the disputed area.

What is the U.S. role in Japanese relations with China and South Korea?

The U.S.-Japanese partnership strengthened during the premiership of Koizumi, who let Japan’s regional alliances weaken. During the post-war occupation period, the United States helped draft Japan’s pacifist constitution, guaranteeing Tokyo the benefit of America ’s strategic nuclear “umbrella.” But in recent years, Washington pushed the Japanese to be more assertive with their military, both in the face of North Korea ’s nuclear threat and as the United States needed allies in Iraq. The result placed Tokyo and Washington on the same side of a demanding stance against North Korea, while South Korea, under the leadership of left-leaning Prime Minister Roh Moo Hyun, as well as China adopted a more conciliatory stance to their rogue neighbor. Kang says the United States appears to be “pinning its future presence in East Asia solely on relations to Japan, which seems pretty odd because Japan is the odd man out” in the region, and this stance forces South Korea to revert to “its role of junior partner of China.”

Abe will likely continue this close partnership with the United States, but Swaine says that Abe’s decision to head to China and South Korea before Washington showed his commitment to repairing seriously damaged relations with both countries. “If North Korea continues down this path and Chinese [military-] buildup continues, it will increase pressure on Japan," says Bush, who cites strengthening the protective U.S.-Japanese alliance as the easiest response to avoiding a northeast Asian arms race.

What does the future hold for relations between the three countries?

Abe made an important first step toward mending fences with Hu and Roh by arranging the summits, and experts say that the move signaled a welcome change forChina and South Korea. There was a “clear desire in Beijing to get out of this box,” says Swaine, because the breakdown under Koizumi presented obstacles to China’s establishment. Kang stresses that a great deal of the conflict involves political rhetoric, while economic relations are good and “people in China and Japan and South Korea are going on with their lives.” China replaced the United States as Japan’s largest trading partner in 2004, and South Korea is its third biggest. Bush says that the North Korea nuclear test offers an incentive to China and South Korea to “keep Japan calm,” because neither country wants Tokyo to go nuclear.

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