When Japanese voters go to the polls this weekend, several parties want them to consider whether Japan's ties to the United States are adequate to counterbalance a newly belligerent China.
The Liberal Democratic Party, the opinion poll favorite to pull the most votes in the election Dec. 16, is among parties pledging to strengthen the trans-Pacific relationship, although few have aired ideas as to how to ease festering tensions like the now apparently routine incursions by Chinese patrol vessels into Japanese waters.
LDP President Shinzo Abe has described such sovereignty-challenging measures by China as a "diplomatic defeat" for Japan under the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.
"When we were in power, we never saw what we are seeing now," Abe said, referring to the Chinese vessels that patrol a short distance off the disputed Senkaku Islands and sometimes come within a few miles of the coast.
"We will return to power, restore a strong Japan-U.S. alliance and defend our land and sea," he pledged.
While China trespasses in its southern waters, North Korea is challenging Japan's sovereignty, too, with a threatened launch of a long-range ballistic missile this month, likely over southern Japanese islands.
It amounts to an increasingly grim security environment for Japan.
The LDP's campaign platform promises "assertive diplomacy to protect national interests, under a stronger Japan-U.S. alliance."
It spells out a number of measures to enhance the alliance, including lifting a ban on the right to collective self-defense, which would enable Japan to launch a counterattack in the event that the United States is attacked.
Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has described the ban as a constraint on cooperation within the alliance.
Abe, who served as prime minister from 2006 for a year, has long advocated lifting the ban by amending the government's interpretation of the Constitution.
The LDP promises to review Japan-U.S. defense guidelines and develop a stronger deterrent in line with the new U.S. military strategy, described by Washington as a pivot toward the Asia-Pacific. The move is widely seen as being aimed at keeping China's maritime expansion in check.
The LDP also plans to strengthen Japan's administration of the Senkaku Islands, which have been uninhabited for decades.
The party said it will consider posting public employees to the islands, in order to establish a permanent presence there, and enabling more extensive fishing in the area.
The LDP's hardline position on China has struck a chord with Shintaro Ishihara, who leads the newly formed Japan Restoration Party.
During a debate between party leaders in late November, Ishihara referred to private talks he had held with Abe about the Senkaku isles.
Addressing Abe during the debate, Ishihara said: "When you and I dined before you were elected LDP president, you promised to build a lighthouse and a shelter for fishing boats, didn't you?" Abe was named LDP leader in September.
Ishihara's own ambitions in April as Tokyo governor to purchase three of the Senkaku islands from their private owner for the Tokyo metropolitan government set in motion the dispute with China.
In a meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in August, Ishihara called on the central government to build a shelter and other facilities on the isles to strengthen Japan's administration of them. Weeks later, Noda went ahead with the purchase.
Meanwhile, like the LDP, the Japan Restoration Party is calling for lifting the ban on the right to collective self-defense.
And it has proposed scrapping a de facto ceiling on the defense budget, which limits spending to 1 percent of gross domestic product.
The DPJ has kept its distance from both the LDP and the Japan Restoration Party by promising a "cool-headed, realistic foreign and defense policy."
"We will refrain from provocative, adventure-seeking or anti-foreign approaches," Noda said.
Noda's decision to put the Senkaku Islands under state ownership sparked anti-Japanese protests and boycotts of Japanese products throughout China. Construction of government facilities there—even a facility behind which fishing boats could shelter in a storm—would likely draw a fiercer backlash.
In the Lower House election in 2009, which brought the DPJ to power, the party promised to establish an "equal Japan-U.S. alliance" and create an East Asian Community.
In the upcoming election, the DPJ declares that Japan-U.S. relations remain the axis of Japan's foreign and defense policy. It also pledges to strengthen economic ties with Washington, with a view to joining the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement.
The pro-Constitution Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party are both staunchly opposed to lifting the ban on the right to collective self-defense. The JCP says doing so would annul the war-renouncing Article 9.
The two parties are seeking abolition of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty and want to conclude a new peace treaty. The SDP says the pact would lead to disarmament and the creation of a nuclear weapon-free zone in northeast Asia.
LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura, a former foreign minister, said he believes Japan-China ties are on modestly good terms, although he acknowledges that the Senkakus dispute will not be solved easily.
"What is important is to set individual problems aside and steer the overall relationship in a favorable direction," he said.
But neither the LDP nor other parties have spelled out exactly how they would restore Japan-China relations.
Noda has called for easing tensions through dialogue. But the DPJ has dropped its proposal of forming an East Asian Community from its campaign platform this year.
How to reduce the military burden on Okinawa Prefecture will be a key factor in strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance.
Tokyo and Washington have agreed to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, to Nago, in the same prefecture. But Okinawans, fed up with the burden of hosting U.S. troops, demand that the facility be moved out of the prefecture.
"Aren't we imposing on Okinawa a burden Japan should shoulder as a whole?" LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba said in Ginowan on Dec. 4, the day of the official start of campaigning.
Still, the word "Futenma" is conspicuously absent from the campaign platforms of both the LDP and the DPJ.
Yukio Hatoyama, the first DPJ prime minister, was forced to step down after he failed to deliver on a promise to move the Futenma facility out of Okinawa Prefecture.
Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima is adamant that relocation must take place.
"We will not change our stance, whatever administration comes into power," he said.
A string of crimes committed by U.S. service members in Okinawa, as well as the deployment of the accident-prone Osprey military transport aircraft, have only added to distrust of the central government.
Okinawans have stepped up calls for revising the Status of Forces Agreement, which governs how the U.S. military operates in Japan.
However, the LDP's campaign platform does not address this. The DPJ is merely offering to improve how the agreement is administered.
Meanwhile, Takashi Shiraishi, president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said Japan should abandon ambitions to play in the same game as superpowers the United States and China—and adopt another role.
He said Japan should follow Germany and France in working together and using a regional framework, in their case the European Union, and thereby expand its international clout.
"The Senkaku Islands dispute will not be resolved 50 years from now," Shiraishi said. "What is required of diplomacy is to prevent the confrontation from affecting the overall relationship, including the economy."
(This article was compiled from reports by Naotaka Fujita and Nanae Kurashige.)
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