TOKYO — When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Washington next month, he will likely be greeted with the warm tones of diplomacy due a close ally, followed by an urgent message: Please don’t draw us into a shooting match with the Chinese over a pile of uninhabited rocks.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide election in December based primarily on economic and domestic issues, but its leaders also staked nationalist positions that stoked mistrust among Asian neighbors, some of whom have never entirely forgiven Japan for its pre-WWII imperialism.
Japan’s re-emergent nationalism comes at a time when tensions were already escalating over ownership of the Japanese-administrated Senkaku Islands, known to China as the Diaoyutai.
The island dispute may be Abe’s most pressing foreign policy challenge, but his relationship with South Korea and his willingness to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution will also have important effects on Washington’s long-term strategy in the Pacific.
The United States does not take an official position on the disputed islands’ sovereignty, but it is obligated to defend the islands in Japan’s favor if they are attacked, under its bilateral security treaty with Tokyo.
Although both Japan and China have signaled a desire to avoid violence, some analysts say the specter of a hothead setting off a firefight has never seemed as possible as it does now.
On Jan. 10, Japan scrambled its Okinawa–based fighter jets when a Chinese surveillance plane entered airspace that Japan considers part of its “Air Defense Identity Zone.” China then sent its own fighter jets in response.
The next day, Abe declared at a news conference that “there is no room for negotiations” with China over the islands, located in the East China Sea between Okinawa and China.
Chinese ships have also in recent months repeatedly sailed within the islands’ territorial waters, where they have come within proximity to Japanese coast guard vessels.
The recent jet scrambling “opened everybody’s eyes to how close we are to something going badly wrong,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank.
It will be politically difficult for either side to back off their strident claims, Smith said.
On Jan. 18, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida held out an olive branch to China while visiting Washington, saying Tokyo maintained its position but would avoid provoking China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a peaceful resolution but added that the United States would “oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration.”
Clinton’s comments met a harsh response in Beijing. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters Monday that Clinton’s comments were “ignorant of facts and indiscriminate of rights and wrongs.”
On Tuesday, while appearing on a Japanese talk show, Abe suggested there might be a need for a summit with Chinese leaders.
What Japan and China both need are some “rules of the road” in the East and South China seas, Smith said. The rules would provide a protocol for what steps to take when the two countries’ patrols meet in disputed regions, whether by air or sea.
However, that would require political courage, since nationalists on each side could view such an agreement as a concession that the other side has some right to be there.
“I don’t know [whether] Beijing is in the mood to proceed with [an agreement],” Smith said.
Any such plan would include input from the United States, which remains the eminent naval and air power in the region and regularly patrols the seas bordering China.
The United States also wants Japan and South Korea — which collectively house about 70,000 U.S. troops — to be part of a more tightly knit regional strategy. However, a diplomatic rift over territorial rights to an island known to Koreans as Dokdo and Japanese as Takeshima widened when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the island last year.
Abe sent a special envoy to Seoul this month to meet with President-elect Park Geun-hye in a bid to mend that rift. However, any goodwill he achieves could unravel if he rescinds or revises a 20-year-old apology for the Japanese military’s use of South Korean women as sex slaves.
In 2007, during his first stint as prime minister, which lasted only a year, Abe first voiced his view that the Japanese military never forcibly enslaved “comfort women.” When Abe’s views came back up recently, they spurred protests outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea.
Even Abe’s supporters say any revision to the apology will probably fray relations. Toshiyuki Shikata, a retired Japan Self-Defense Force lieutenant general and professor at Teikyo University in Tokyo, said Abe’s view is more in line with what the Japanese public believes.
“It is easy to follow what the past administrations have said, but he thinks it is better to make [his view] clear now,” Shikata said.
Despite the emotional rift that revising the apology could create, Shikata said both countries have demonstrated the ability to work together on economic and security issues.
Abe’s desire to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution has also raised concerns among its Asian neighbors, though U.S. officials have previously indicated they would welcome such changes.
Under Article 9 of the Japanese constitution — which was written by U.S. planners after WWII — Japan has no right to collective self-defense. While the U.S. is obligated to defend a Japanese ship in international waters, the constitution does not allow a Japanese ship to defend an attacked U.S. ship in the same situation.
Abe is unlikely to revise the constitution because the bar is a high one. It would require a two-thirds majority in both houses in parliament, and so much political capital that it would blot out more pressing economic matters, Smith said.
However, a reinterpretation of Article 9 would only have to be certified by the cabinet’s legal affairs bureau as being consistent with the constitution. Such reinterpretations have allowed Japan to provide logistical support to U.S. missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the past. Added reinterpretations could also aid cooperation with the United States on missile defense projects.
“If [Abe] takes that step, I don’t think anyone will take that interpretation back, even after he steps down,” Shikata said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.