China and South Korea Appear Ready to Deal With Abe

You could say I’m behind, not yet having addressed Abe Shinzo’s official announcement that he’s running for LDP president, and the more important announcement that he would get behind constitutional revision full-force as prime minister. “I’d like to draft a new constitution with my own hands,” he said.

In fact, top LDP officials have said publicly for months that the U.S.-imposed “Peace Constitution” should be revised to more accurately reflect present day military realities. Certainly, the existence of the Self Defense Forces and Japan’s status as the fourth largest military spender in the world betray the reality that Japan does not adhere to Article 9 of that constitution, in which it “forever” renounces force or the threat of force as an instrument of foreign policy and bars the maintenance of armed forces. That Abe came out in support of a change is no surprise, and it’s probably not a bad idea.

What’s surprising is that regional reaction seems to be subdued. My experience in reading public rhetorical exchanges from across the East China Sea led me to expect a firm negative response to the revision; I expected that the Chinese regime would hail this change as part of a “new rise in Japanese militarism.” I expected a similar response from South Korea.

On the contrary, China’s state-controlled media have been mostly silent (from what I can see in English) on Abe’s announcement, with only a straight news-style report from Xinhua. Meanwhile, South Korea has invited Abe to meet with Roh Moo Hyun, who has refused to meet with Koizumi since November over his Yasukuni visits.

Abe has said that improving regional ties is a key goal of his presumed premiership. A Voice of America online article notes that this common-sense sentiment is not unique to Abe. Although Foreign Minister Aso Taro has essentially no chance of winning election, he has weighed in, saying that personality differences between Koizumi and regional leaders were the problem, not his shrine visits. (This makes sense from a man who is perhaps more of a nationalist than Koizumi and who advocates the re-nationalization of Yasukuni.) The finance minister, Tanigaki Sadakazu, another long-shot LDP candidate is the only candidate to say he would not visit the shrine as prime minister. Japanese finance ministers, who need to work with Chinese and South Korean counterparts even in a tense diplomatic climate, tend to be less controversial internationally.

No one knows whether Abe will continue visiting the shrine, but the mere change of leadership gives all sides the opportunity to recast the Yasukuni issue, which had been mired in Koizumi’s rhetoric since 2001. It is by no means inconceivable that Abe will visit the shrine and improve ties with China and South Korea. If the debate is reframed so that no one has to go back on any strong public stances, then there is a great deal of diplomatic wiggle room in Northeast Asia.

Japanese Foreign Minister Machimura Nobutaka acknowledged that fact Sunday, saying: “The Japan-China relationship is not so simple that it does not go anywhere unless we decide what is right on the Yasukuni issue.” Machimura sees a Japan–China summit as possible as early as November, at the APEC meeting.

One thing is for certain, Yasukuni has been no one’s litmus test in the selection of Abe. It has stayed mostly out of the picture, and we will have to wait and see what happens to the site’s symbolic significance following Koizumi’s departure.

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