Experts: Japan's New PM Could Follow Through on Tough Talk

Shinzo Abe may back up rhetoric on stronger military against China.

Shinzo Abe leaves a press conference at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo on Dec. 17, 2012.
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The tide has changed in east Asia, where a landslide election in Japan reinstated a veteran leader who may follow through on hard-line language against a neighboring country trying to assert itself as a military power.

The people of Japan have once again voted Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party into power, reinstating the right-leaning party that has governed Japan for almost all of its post-World War II history. Abe ran on a platform of economic reform, as well as a more aggressive policy to China.

Beijing has sought to send a message in recent months that its military is transitioning from a domestic force to more of a regional power, much to the ire of the Japanese government and its immediate neighbors.

"There is no such thing as containing China, given its stature in the world and economic dependence other countries have [on it]," says Nicholas Szechenyi, deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Abe's strong rhetoric during the campaign was "another step in Japan's response to changes in the security environment around it."

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"It will evolve in close cooperation with the U.S. and other countries," he says. "We'll see how far he's able to go."

Military maneuvers on the sea and in the air don't represent the first time China and Japan have squared off militarily. Relations between the two economic powerhouses reached a boiling point in 1996 when China tested long-range missiles.

Abe's desire to push back on China has caught the attention of the region, one expert says.

"Mr. Abe's long-cherished objectives of constitutional revision, embrace of collective defense, and — in the run up to this election — his self-cultivated image as someone capable of taking a tough stance with China on the territorial dispute, does create concern among Japan's neighbors," says Mireya Solis, a senior fellow at the Brookings Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies.

"But the newly elected prime minister also understands that despite the landslide victory of his party, the LDP does not enjoy widespread popular support," she adds. "Voters care first and foremost about economic growth and not issues such as renaming the armed forces."

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The Japanese electorate conducted an "experiment" by electing Yoshihiko Noda and the Democratic Party of Japan into power in 2009, says Szechenyi, in a desire for change and to spur economic growth. In three years, no one was able to articulate a compelling policy agenda, and now the public has shifted in a different direction, he says.

Abe previously served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007.

Yet, the political math may limit Abe's ability to develop Japan's ability to respond. The United Nations Charter permits any country or coalition of nations to engage in "collective self-defence." However, Article IX of the Japanese Constitution prohibits Japan from declaring war. Amending the constitution would require majority votes in both houses of parliament, and a public referendum. The Japanese Upper House, called the House of Councillors, which the LDP does not control, will face an election in June, so Abe will likely focus much of his energy on economic reforms, not military action, to gain support in the coming months, says Szechenyi.

It doesn't appear that China is planning to change its strategy, however.

"Recent Chinese activities could be associated with political activities in China, but fundamentally this is part of the Chinese strategy to exert its influence on the maritime domain," says Szechenyi.

"The strategy for Japan is to reassure China, on one hand," he says. "But on the other hand, to dissuade China from taking action that could really provoke."

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  • Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at pshinkman@usnews.com.