In a news conference held on Dec. 26 to mark his inauguration as the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe said, “It is necessary to think about strategies with a viewpoint like the one that sees on a world map.”
Two days later, Abe talked by telephone with the leaders of Russia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, India and Britain one after another.
On a world map, these countries, except Britain, are encircling China.
China, which is promoting military expansion and advance into the ocean, is intensifying its conflict with Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. An aide to the new prime minister said that talks with the leaders of the six countries were aimed at keeping China in check.
In other news conferences immediately before and after his inauguration, Abe emphasized that, “Japan-China relations are the biggest challenge of the 21st century (for Japan) in the fields of diplomacy and security” and “I will reconstruct the relationship of trust of the Japan-U.S. alliance.”
Under the previous governments led by the Democratic Party of Japan, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama dealt with China from a philosophy of the “East Asian community.” On the other hand, Hatoyama expressed his objections to the Japan-U.S. agreement on the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture. As a result, he heightened U.S. distrust of Japan.
Subsequent governments, led by Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda, changed the stance and placed importance on the United States. Then, China started to have doubts about Japan's true intentions toward it. In addition, Japan's nationalization of three of the disputed Senkaku Islands worsened Japan-China relations further.
Compared with the DPJ-led governments that have varied in their relationship with the United States and China, the Abe Cabinet clearly shows that it will place importance on the United States to keep China in check. However, Abe's approach in taking those positions differ from when he assumed the post of prime minister for the first time in 2006.
In those days, Japan-China relations had worsened due to predecessor Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors not only war dead but also Class-A war criminals. Because of that, Abe chose China as his first country to visit as prime minister to repair bilateral relations.
This time, however, Abe plans the United States to be the first country he visits as prime minister. As Japan has no leeway to make concessions to China in relation to the Senkakus, Abe plans to solidify relations with the United States in order to counter China.
To deal with China’s growing military power, Abe will also strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities. He has already ordered new Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera to review defense policies taken by the DPJ-led governments, including the National Defense Program Outline.
The defense budget for the next fiscal year that starts in April 2013 is likely to increase for the first time in 11 years.
Abe also ordered Onodera to review guidelines on the Japan-U.S. defense cooperation, which stipulate how the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and U.S. forces cooperate. The Defense Ministry will conduct the review, which is expected to focus on how to deal with China.
The point of the review is whether to approve the exercise of the right to collective self-defense, which allows Japan to launch counterattacks when U.S. forces are attacked.
The Japanese government has banned the exercise of the right based on the interpretation of the Constitution. However, Abe said in his Dec. 26 inauguration news conference that he will consider exercising the right.
“If the exercise of the right is approved, the contents of the review of the (Japan-U.S. defense cooperation) guidelines will change dramatically,” he said.
DPJ-led governments advocated that politicians take a larger leadership role in governing the country. However, they eventually showed the weak leadership present in the prime minister’s office. In the Hatoyama Cabinet, for example, opinions of ministers were divided on the transfer of the Futenma air station. A defense minister called himself an “amateur” on defense issues. Another defense minister also had difficulties in answering defense-related questions in the Diet. Opposition lawmakers were critical of the prime minister for appointing them.
Abe intends to implement diplomatic and security policies under the initiative of the prime minister’s office. Because of that, he has gathered a collection of right-hand men, including not only lawmakers but also bureaucrats and experts, around himself.
Abe appointed his aide, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, to the newly established post in charge of strengthening national security.
On Dec. 28, Suga told families of North Korean abduction victims that the prime minister’s office will take the initiative in negotiations with North Korea.
“We can get the information of all of the ministries and agencies. We will do our best,” Suga said.
Waseda University professor Shotaro Yachi, who is serving as an adviser in the Cabinet Secretariat, also gave advice to Abe when Abe was the prime minister from 2006 to 2007. At that time, Yachi was a vice foreign minister.
Abe’s view that Japan-China relationship is the biggest challenge of the 21st century for Japan is Yachi’s pet theory.
Abe also handpicked Nobukatsu Kanehara, former chief of the Foreign Ministry’s International Legal Affairs Bureau, as an assistant to the deputy chief Cabinet secretary. In Abe's first stint as prime minister, Kanehara was deeply involved in the government’s key diplomatic strategy, “Arc of freedom and prosperity,” a concept that supports economic development and a shift to democratic governments in regions from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia.
However, the current Abe administration is facing a deadlock in the Senkaku crisis. In China, the government and the military are standing side by side under the Communist Party. Therefore, even if Japan urges the Chinese government through diplomatic channels to ease tensions, it faces difficultly in influencing the military to go along.
At present, the Japan Coast Guard is dealing with Chinese marine surveillance and other vessels’ intrusions into Japanese territorial waters. The Air Self-Defense Force is coping with Chinese aircraft's approaches to the air space around the Senkakus. Close cooperation among the ministries and agencies concerned is necessary.
To promote cooperation under the initiative of the prime minister’s office, Abe advocated the establishment of the national security council as the commanding organization.
In the council, a small number of Cabinet members make flexible judgments depending on themes. In Abe's first term as prime minister, the government submitted related bills to the Diet.
This time, Suga is in charge of the council. On whether to submit bills to the next year’s ordinary Diet session, however, Abe's chief Cabinet secretary said, “We want to consider it from now.”
As for how to ensure cooperation among ministries and agencies, Suga also only said, “We will do it strategically from a broad perspective.”
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