Written by June Teufel Dreyer.

When Shinzō Abe took over as Japan’s prime minister in  September 2012, he became the seventh occupant of that position in the preceding six years. Abe had himself been the first of those, resigning after scarcely a year in office.  Understandably, there were doubts about how long his second try would last. A cartoon that appeared at inauguration time showed Abe settling into the prime ministerial desk in his new office. A second later, the viewer notices that immediately behind him is a revolving door.

Moreover, Abe had inherited a bad situation. Once the powerhouse of Asia, the country’s economy had been in deflation for more than two decades. The March 2011 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown had created an additional burden whose costs were virtually incalculable, particularly since many citizens now demanded that all reactors be dismantled and nuclear power be replaced. Humiliatingly, Japan had recently ceded the position of the world’s second largest economy to perennial rival China.

Relations with China were at a post-World War II low after Abe’s predecessor, hoping to avoid an even more incendiary situation, had purchased from their Japanese owners three of a group of five uninhabited islands claimed by Beijing.[i] Chinese fishing boats now regularly trolled the waters around the islands, with the PRC’s coast guard vessels in the background, and Chinese air force jets increased their overflights into Japanese air space.

Abe was ill-suited to play the role of peace-maker. Grandson of former prime minister Kishi Nobusuke, who had been a member of the militarist Tōj cabinet during World War II, Abe had during his first bid for the prime ministership described his style as “battling diplomacy” (tatakao gaikō) and defended his predecessor, Koizumi Junichirō’s yearly visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. Abe himself had visited the shrine, which Beijing interprets as indicative of the country’s leadership’s lack of remorse for the atrocities that Japan’s militarist government committed against China during World War II. His pre-election words notwithstanding, Abe was relatively placatory toward Beijing during his first term: in a symbolically meaningful departure from Japanese prime ministers’ practice of visiting Washington for their first overseas trip, Abe went to Beijing. Nor did he visit the shrine.

Abe has not been placatory in this second term. Although improving the economy via “Abenomics”[ii] was the major focus of his campaign, Abe made no secret of his conviction that it was necessary to revise article 9 of the country’s constitution in order to protect Japan’s sovereignty. Previous governments have interpreted the article as precluding Japan from participating in collective self-defense, which would make it impossible for Japanese forces to help American forces who were engaged in defending Japan.

After Abe’s election, defense budgets began to rise, albeit after a decade-long decline, and by minuscule amounts (0.8 percent in FY 2013 and 2.2 percent in 2014, p. 48) when compared to the annual double-digit increases the People’s Liberation Army has received since 1989. In August 2013, the Maritime Defense Force launched the Izumo, Japan’s largest warship since World War II, to be the lead ship in a same-named class.[iii] Officially classifying it a helicopter destroyer, DDH-183, the government has emphasized the Izumo’s ability to respond to humanitarian crises such as the March 2011 disaster. This unconvincing ruse is considered necessary since Japan’s constitution forbids its military from possessing offensive weapons. As Chinese sources quickly pointed out, the Izumo could easily be converted to serve as an aircraft carrier compatible with short take-off and vertical landing planes such as the F-35 B. This retrofit could not, however, be effected either quickly or quietly. Additionally, pilots would require intensive training, and the F-35 is not yet available, even for U.S. forces. In December 2013, on the anniversary of his re-election as prime minster, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine. In August 2014, the Japanese Defense Ministry (JDM) released photographs of the prototype of an indigenously-developed stealth fighter.

In keeping with the government’s desire to avoid the perception that it is moving too quickly, foreign policy-related publications have begun to advocate a change from what they termed the country’s previous passive pacifism to “proactive pacifism.” Still, a vocal, if diminishing, segment of the Japanese population fears the consequences of the country’s playing a higher profile role in international relations. Unable to get domestic consensus behind changing article 9 of the constitution, Abe settled for a cabinet decision allowing collective self-defense.

In December 2013, a National Security Council was founded, and in April 2014, the country’s self-imposed ban on weapons exports was relaxed. The JDM has announced plans for a large amphibious assault ship that will enhance the capabilities of the country’s naval aviation. Based on the visit of Defense Minister Onodera to the USS Makin Island in July, the design being contemplated will also support the F-35B, but the JDM will probably not designate it as an assault ship and, as with the Izumo, will emphasize its role in future disaster relief operations.

None of Abe’s moves were uncontroversial. Abe’s party’s coalition partner, the Kōmeitō party, had to be mollified with compromises in the enabling legislation, and even some within his own Liberal Democratic Party were uncomfortable, arguing, for example that a ruling on the validity of collective self-defense should have been made by the cabinet. A cartoonist referred to the re-interpretation as “Abegami.” The visit to Yasukuni was likewise heavily criticized, even eliciting a statement of “disappointment” by Washington.

Abe’s actions were taken in response to actions by Beijing leadership, which in turn argued that it was simply responding to Japanese provocations. The Chinese air force conducted the first known test flight of a stealth fighter in January 2011; as of 2014, Japan has only a prototype. The PRC has had nuclear weapons since 1964: Japan has none and, given the literal and figurative fallout from the nuclear meltdown of 2011, is unlikely to acquire them. China commissioned its first full-fledged aircraft carrier in September 2012, a year prior to the launch of the not-quite-aircraft-carrier Izumo. In mid- 2013, the PRC’s State Oceanic Administration unified elements from several maritime law enforcement agencies which had had separate commands and overlapping jurisdictions into a 16,000 member Chinese Coast Guard,[iv] and in November 2013, predating by a month the inauguration of Japan’s National Security Council, China announced the creation of a National Security Commission.[v] In November as well, it established an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that overlaps that of Japan. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni may have been taken in symbolic retaliation for increased Chinese actions in the Diaoyu/Senkaku area and the announcement of the ADIZ during the previous month.

The Chinese Air Force now has drones, one of which recently flew over the disputed islands, and has been testing, unsuccessfully so far, hypersonic weapons, a capability that only the United States is known to possess.[vi] China has also stoked separatist sentiments in Okinawa where many inhabitants deeply resent the presence of U.S. military bases that the Tokyo government had agreed to. In Harbin, a memorial hall was opened on the site where, in 1909, a Korean patriot had assassinated a Japanese colonial governor. The Chinese and Japanese ambassadors to Great Britain publicly characterized each other’s country as Voldemort, the arch villain of the Harry Potter epic. A Chinese admiral said publicly that Japan must accept Chinese naval dominance. In short, a serious security dilemma has developed, with ominous potential for armed confrontation.

Compromises such as joint development of disputed territories have been explored numerous times–as yet without positive outcomes. In 2008, an agreement in principle appeared to have been reached on disputed oil and gas fields in the East China Sea, away from the Diaoyu/Senkaku group. However, it quickly came apart over disagreement on the implications of cooperative development versus joint development for sovereignty. There have been no subsequent attempts to revive it.

China has called upon Japan to admit that a dispute exists; Japan, since it is at least nominally the administrator of the islands, refuses to do so. As a Japanese diplomat said to me, “It’s as if you are married to your wife for many years and you are happy. Then someone comes along and says to you, “she is my wife. But I’ll be reasonable: we can share her.”[vii] For its part, China is loath to take the case to an international tribunal, first because it perceives its strength growing vis-a-vis Japan, and second since its case is regarded as comparatively weak.[viii] Japan, worried about its control being slowly eroded, becomes all the more determined to protect it.

With both sides having dug themselves into positions where compromise would incur the anger of their respective nationalist groups, the prospects for resolution are not good. Both Tokyo and Beijing seem aware that pushing their cat-and-mouse tactics too far could result in a disastrous episode that would be difficult to back away from.

At the moment, the situation might best be described as cold confrontation. Beijing seems to have decided not to deal with Abe, preferring to await the election of a more pliant prime minister.  This is a tactic it has successfully pursued at least twice before.[ix]  Doing so again may require patience. Either because of or in spite of Abenomics, the Japanese economy has improved, which translates into solid popular support for the prime minister. Meanwhile, the hope is that as long as both China and Japan observe the informal “three noes”—no landing, no construction, and no researching—on the islands, peace can be maintained.

June Teufel Dreyer is a professor of political science at the University of Miami.


[i] The purchase of the three islands did not change the sovereignty issue.  The original owners, the Koga family that owned four of the five islands (the Japanese government having owned one outright since the mid-1930s) paid taxes to the city of Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture. The Koga family then sold the islands to the Kurihara family, which did the same.  The brothers of the Koga family then sold the three islands they owned to the Japanese government in 2012; the sister who owns the fourth island continues to pay taxes to Ishigaki. In about 2009, the Ishigaki government requested permission form the national government to land personnel on the islands to re-evaluate their worth for tax purposes. Yamamoto Masahiro, communication to the author, July 6 2014.  Although legally speaking none of this changed the status quo, the fact that China perceived it as changing the status quo, or said that it did, is a separate issue.

[ii] Abe has described his program as comprising the “three arrows” of a massive fiscal stimulus; more aggressive monetary easing from the Bank of Japan; and structural reforms to boost Japan’s competitiveness.

[iii] Associated Press, August 6, 2013.

[iv] Oxford Analytica Daily Brief, August 6, 2013.

[v] Xinhua, November 12, 2013.

[vi] According to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post August 22, 2014, the test failed.

[vii] Author’s conversation, Ottawa, October 2013.

[viii] See, e.g. June Teufel Dreyer, ”Sino-Japanese Territorial and Maritime Disputes,” in Stephen Kotkin and Bruce Elleman, eds.,  Beijing’s Power and China’s Borders: Twenty Neighbors in Asia,, (Armonk, N.Y.:M.E. Sharpe, 2012) pp. 81-95; Reinhard Drifte, “The Japan-China Confrontation Over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands—Between ‘Shelving’ and ‘Dispute Escalation,’”The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Vol. 12 Issue 30, No. 3, July 28, 2014, pp. 1-29; quote from p. 18.

[ix] In 1972, Satō Eisaku was succeeded by the pro-China Tanaka Kakuei, enabling diplomatic normalization to take place on terms acceptable to the PRC government; in 2006, the combative Koizumi Junichirō was succeeded by six short-lived prime ministers in a row.

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