Jan 09, 2013 06:14 PM

Can Abe Break the Ice Again?

After a hiatus of five years, Shinzo Abe became Japan's prime minister again on December 26. What will this mean for Sino-Japanese relations, which are at a 40-year low because of the Diaoyu Islands dispute?

Many observers earlier believed that the Chinese government had been expecting the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to step down from power, so they knew it wasn't very useful to start negotiations with then prime minister Yoshihiko Noda to repair the two countries' relations. But they hope to resume talks with Abe who, during his previous premiership in 2006-07 agreed to develop "mutually beneficial strategic relations."

The way Abe reorganized his cabinet and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) cadres after taking office can be seen as sending signals to China. The first signal is that Masahiko Komura, the president of the Japan-China Friendship Parliamentarians' Union, will remain as the LDP's vice-president. Abe will send him to China as his special envoy as early as January.

The second signal is that the newly appointed foreign minister and defense minister are believed to be the party's doves regarding China. This would prevent the hawks from interfering in foreign policy.

The third signal is that Abe's cabinet secretariat will play a leading role. Shotaro Yachi is serving as the cabinet's diplomatic advisor and will be involved in foreign affairs. In 2006, as vice foreign minister, Yachi played a critical role in Abe's ice-breaking journey to China.

On December 25, Masato Kitera, the new Japanese ambassador to China, took office in Beijing. He is very experienced diplomat. Resilient and good at communicating, Kitera will not get into bickering with the government, unlike Uichiro Niwa, his predecessor. In the context of improving Sino-Japanese ties, this appointment will be helpful. However, Kitera is not Superman, and Japan should not count on him alone to improve the two countries' ties.

A few months ago, widespread anti-Japanese demonstrations caused sales of Japanese cars to slump in China. The number of Chinese tourists traveling to Japan has also dropped. This is in stark contrast with trade between China and other countries. Given Japan's current sluggish economic outlook and the fact that Japanese companies are losing their market share in China, the financial sector – which has a close relationship with Abe – is eager for the new prime minister to repair ties. Abe will not ignore their pleas.

In a survey conducted by Japan's state-owned broadcaster, NHK, in October, 44 percent of respondents said the Japanese government "should attach greater importance to improving relations with China," whereas 41 percent said "Japan should take a tougher stance."

Abe is a pragmatist. Unlike the DJP administration, he clearly differentiates between running for election and ruling. From a September run-off to the LDP's victory in the general election to assuming office, he has gradually switched from a hawkish stance to being more realistic.

For instance, when China's anti-Japanese demonstrations were at their peak, Abe proposed ideas for strengthening control over the Diaoyu Islands and for modifying Japan's Self-Defense Forces Law to defend the country's territorial waters. However, these policies were not present during the LDP convention. On the contrary, as the general election grew closer, Abe said that he would like to return bilateral ties to the "initial point of mutually beneficial strategic relations."

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