China and South Korea repeated their concerns about a rightward shift in Japanese politics, warning that Japan’s new leader could escalate disputes over territories and military history issues in Asia.
Media in China and South Korea, which have described Liberal Democratic Party President Shinzo Abe as a “genuine hawk,” provided extensive coverage and opinions on the LDP’s decisive victory in the Dec. 16 Lower House election.
At 7:04 p.m. in Beijing, just four minutes after polling stations closed in Japan, the state-run Xinhua News Agency issued a flash on its English-language service, citing Japanese reports that predicted the LDP would win a majority and Abe would get a second chance as prime minister.
Chinese media have criticized Abe’s plans to revise Japan’s pacifist Constitution and upgrade the Self-Defense Forces into a national defense force. The LDP’s victory also came as China and Japan continue to bicker over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Gao Hong, deputy director of the Institute of Japanese Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told state-run Central China Television on Dec. 16 that a change of government in Tokyo could actually lead to a fresh approach in resolving the current impasse in relations.
He said Abe has both experience and flexibility, and he may make realistic decisions that meet Japan's national interests after he is sworn in as prime minister.
But most observers in China remained cautious, given the LDP’s newfound strength in the Lower House.
"Abe now has more options than before about whom to cooperate with," said a senior official of a Chinese government-affiliated think tank. "Much about the future of Sino-Japanese relations depends on the framework of his coalition."
Xinhua said the framework of the next Japanese government remains a "wild card," noting that Abe is close to former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara on constitutional amendments and other issues of security and defense.
Ishihara, who has repeatedly infuriated China with his comments about World War II, triggered the recent flare-up over the Senkakus by announcing the Tokyo metropolitan government’s plan to buy the islands. This prompted the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to buy them instead, triggering anti-Japan protests in China and repeated incursions by Chinese vessels around the uninhabited islands, which Beijing calls Diaoyu.
Xinhua expressed concerns about a possible tie-up between Abe’s LDP and the Ishihara-led Japan Restoration Party, and also warned that Japan’s traditional pacifist line could end unless the rightward shift is curbed.
"Over the past several years, with the relative decline in national power and the gradual exit of people who remember the war, winds of 'nostalgia' and 'restoration' have swept Japanese society, providing a background for the comeback of conservative forces on the political stage," a Xinhua commentary said. "This is a major factor behind the repetitive provocations by Japan's right-wing forces over the past few years in historical, diplomatic and territorial issues.
“If the LDP really wants to 'restore Japan,' it has to first face history squarely, respect the postwar international order, block the expansion of far-right forces and preserve the long-cherished roots of peace."
The People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, strongly warned against Abe's potential visits as prime minister to Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial in Tokyo that honors Japan's war dead along with 14 Class A war criminals.
"The issue of visits to Yasukuni Shrine is associated with whether Japan has the capacity ... to respect the sentiments of people in the vast array of war-afflicted nations, including China," the People's Daily said.
In South Korea, many of the Dec. 17 morning editions of major newspapers predicted that Abe’s ascent to power will bode ill for ties in Asia.
“Concerns have emerged that South Korea-Japan relations and Sino-Japanese relations could sustain stormy waves," the Hankyoreh daily said.
South Korean media have repeatedly criticized Abe's hard-line remarks, particularly his downplaying of the issue of "comfort women," who were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.
"Japan reverted to the past," said a headline in the JoongAng Ilbo daily.
The Dong-A Ilbo newspaper said it will closely watch what Abe has to say in the coming days.
"If Abe revises the Kono statement or visits Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan may fall into an irreparable stage," the Dong-A Ilbo said.
Abe has called for a review of the 1993 Kono statement, in which Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged the Japanese military's involvement in the recruitment of comfort women and the operation of "comfort stations." The statement offers an apology from Japan.
Aug. 15 marks the anniversary of the end of World War II and Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule.
A JoongAng Ilbo article said another date is worth noting.
"A variety of right-leaning election pledges, set forward by the LDP, are likely to be put into practice without restraint," the opinion piece said. "A watershed in South Korea-Japan relations is expected to fall on Feb. 22."
The LDP has pledged to hold a government-sponsored ceremony on that date, which is designated "Takeshima Day" under an ordinance of the Shimane prefectural government.
Takeshima, a group of reefs and two islets in the Sea of Japan, is administered by South Korea, which calls it Dokdo. Japan also claims the islands, saying they are under the jurisdiction of Shimane Prefecture.
Takeshima Day is only three days ahead of the Feb. 25 inauguration ceremony for the next president of South Korea, who will be elected on Dec. 19.
Choi Bong-tae, a South Korean lawyer who is working to resolve the comfort women issue, told The Asahi Shimbun that Abe's rise to power could have unpredictably beneficial results.
"If the birth of an Abe administration enhances public awareness of the issue, that could paradoxically induce a solution," Choi said.
On the other side of the Pacific, U.S. President Barack Obama on Dec. 16 issued a statement of congratulations to Abe and the LDP.
"I congratulate ... Abe on his party's success in the elections in Japan today," the statement read. "The U.S.-Japan alliance serves as the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific and I look forward to working closely with the next government and the people of Japan. … I also extend my appreciation to Prime Minister Noda for his many contributions to U.S.-Japan relations."
(Nozomu Hayashi and Atsushi Okudera in Beijing, Tetsuya Hakoda and Akira Nakano in Seoul, and Hiroshi Ito in Washington contributed to this article.)
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