December 6, 2012 8:35 am

China looms large over Japanese poll

There are few direct mentions of China in the foreign policy platforms of the three main parties contesting Japan’s general election – but plenty of signs of worry about Asia’s fastest rising power between their carefully written lines.

Promises to protect Japanese territory, pledges to strengthen coastguard forces and calls for closer alliance with the US litter the manifestos of the ruling Democratic party, opposition Liberal Democrats and insurgent new Restoration party.

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Such shared priorities are a symptom of deep concern in Japan caused by a flaring dispute with China over ownership of the Senkaku islands, a remote and uninhabited island group that Beijing calls the Diaoyu.

But despite the surface similarity of the leading parties’ platforms, analysts say the December 16 election could have profound implications for Japan’s relations with China in a region where diplomacy is still clouded by historical animosities.

Attention is focused in particular on Shinzo Abe, leader of the opposition LDP and favourite to become Japan’s next prime minister, who has taken a much tougher tone on the Senkaku dispute than has the incumbent DPJ.

Indeed, deep in the small print of the LDP policy platform is a pledge to consider stationing Japanese government officials on the Senkaku.

Such a move would mark a dramatic shift from Japan’s past policy of leaving the group almost untouched in order to avoid raising tensions with China, and would be likely to spark fury in Beijing.

“If Mr Abe wins power and actually acts in accordance with the things he has been saying, for example by stationing officials on the islands, then I don’t know what the result will be,” says Zhang Jifeng, a research director at China’s Institute of Japanese Studies. “In the worst case it could lead to war.”

Chinese suspicions of Mr Abe are heightened by his reputation as one of Japan’s most high-profile nationalist politicians and his determination to revise the nation’s pacifistic constitution in order to turn its “Self Defence Forces” into a formal military.

In Beijing such positions are seen as setting a “frightening direction” toward possible militarisation of the sort that fuelled Japan’s 1930s and 40s invasion of China, says Zhou Yongsheng, a Japan expert at the China Foreign Affairs University.

“Abe is a rightwing politician, and the Chinese government worries greatly about the ideology that he holds in his heart of hearts,” says Mr Zhou.

Supporters of Mr Abe dismiss the idea that victory for the LDP could be disastrous for Sino-Japanese ties.

The candidate himself frequently reminds voters that during a previous stint as prime minister in 2006-2007 he presided over a rapprochement in relations after years of diplomatic chill. And he has appointed as LDP vice-president a former foreign minister, Masahiko Komura, who has close links with China.

Even if it becomes the largest party in the Diet’s lower house, the LDP will not have a free hand. It appears almost certain – despite recent opinion polls – to rely for a Diet majority on its political ally Komeito, which favours better Sino-Japanese relations and strongly opposes constitutional change. And even wider co-operation will be needed in the Diet’s fragmented upper chamber.

A senior diplomat who served under Mr Abe’s administration says the LDP leader is likely to put aside his nationalist campaign rhetoric if he wins office, just as he did last time. “He won’t have much choice,” the diplomat says.

Yet the election is set to give new clout to a candidate even less favoured by Beijing. The leader of the nascent Restoration party is Shintaro Ishihara, the famously anti-China former governor of Tokyo who ignited recent Senkaku tensions by launching an effort to buy the islands for development.

The Restoration party is running the DPJ close in opinion polls and the election appears certain to give Mr Ishihara a national platform to promote such proposals as scrapping the postwar constitution and laying the ground for future development of nuclear weapons.

It is a prospect that Yoshihiko Noda, prime minister, hopes will help shore up support for the DPJ among voters disappointed by its performance in power.

The DPJ ran in 2009 on hopeful talk of a transformation of foreign policy that would bring Japan closer to Asia and lay the ground for regional integration. This time it promises the more prosaic “calm diplomacy” and “responsible defence”.

On the stump on Wednesday, Mr Noda said his 450 days as premier had shown him the need for guts in diplomacy, but voters should be suspicious of tough talk.

“If we fall into anti-foreignism and adventurism that provokes our counterparts, then this nation will be put in danger,” Mr Noda said.

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