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What to expect from Shinzo Abe

Updated On: Sep 26, 2006

Shinzo Abe’s election as the head of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is closely-watched in Japan, whether by his supporters or detractors.

Abe has revealed his admiration for the US political system by giving notice that one of his first domestic policy change is to convert Japan’s antiquated British-style cabinet system to that of a Washington-style Presidential White House system in which the Prime Minister of Japan would resemble the US President with his own group of advisors and specialist resources.  He seemed to believe that the Presidential system would allow him to exercise faster and more decisive leadership over issues that require immediate response like the North Korean missile crisis or global peacekeeping demands.

One of the disadvantages of the British-style cabinet system is the factional battles that occur frequently amongst Japanese cabinet ministers, not much weaker than the highly-publicized British Tony Blair-Gordon Brown spats. The Prime Minister's Office said it will appoint ministry officials to a special assignment office with responsibilities for specific tasks under Mr Abe's instructions. Mr Abe told all government ministries and agencies that applications are invited from talented mid-level bureaucrats, starting with his own hand-picked ten.

Other than internal changes, Abe’s foreign policy will also be under intense scrutiny. Five years of Koizumi rule has brought Sino-Japanese relations to its pits. In terms of people to people exchanges, only one in five, or 20 per cent, of the Chinese had a favourable view of Japan while, on the other side, only 28 per cent of the Japanese had a positive opinion of China - down considerably from 2002 when the figure was 55 per cent. Previously, Sino-Japanese politics had depended on ordinary Japanese sympathies for their war activities in China and Chinese societal admiration of Japan’s remarkable economic growth to sustain ties through some high profile, non-politically correct utterances or activities on the part of conservative politicians but, this time, the Yasukuni visits and rising nationalism have directly affected the sentiments of ordinary people on both sides. 

With both political and societal ties at an all-time low, it is perhaps not surprising that the onus now falls on the Japanese business sector to come to the rescue. Despite all the animosities, the enthusiasm of Japanese conservatives to direct investments away from China to Southeast Asia, Japan External Trade Organization (Jetro) has projected Sino-Japanese trade to reach a peak of US$200 billion this year. Such economic exchanges are crucial to both Japan which wants to sustain its economic recovery and China which needs to create jobs to prevent social unrest.

And Japan’s Big Business moved fast to exert pressure on Abe which is widely seen as lacking experience and a solid base to be tough on China like Koizumi. Japan’s Big Business knows that its support is crucial for young Abe who needs vast resources for his own quest to change the Peace Constitution, fend off the numerous Koizumi’s enemies accumulated over five years and tackle the very politically-savvy veteran Opposition Leader Ozawa. Thailand’s recent military coup is seen as a perfect opportunity or political excuse to re-direct economic attention back to China away from so-called alternatives like Southeast Asia. China, it is decided, is where the main action is. Japan’s big business organizations with their own media outfits predicts that investments will be diverted back to China for at least two years from Southeast Asia after the coup in Thailand, the country hitherto known as the ‘Detroit of Southeast Asia’. In any case, Abe’s book Utsukushi kuni e (Towards a Beautiful Country) has 15 pages dedicated to China, and 5 pages dedicated to the rest of Asia (mainly Australia and South Korea). This is the best indication of his priorities for foreign policy.

Which is why, Abe moved with lightning speed to bring back the trilaterals (with South Korea and China) and the bilaterals (with China). Just one day after the LDP elections, Japan and China began high level sub-Cabinet-level talks Saturday 23 September 2006 in Tokyo to pave the way for a summit after the Shinzo Abe administration comes into power. Before even Abe was confirmed in his position as Prime Minister, he was said to have held underground talks (known as ‘underwater talks’ in Japan) with Chinese Communist Party notables and powerbrokers in Tokyo and met with the Japan’s China Economic Association (JCEA) President and advisor upon their return from Beijing on 6 September 2006. JCEA is one of Japan’s most powerful business lobby group. 

The 23 September 2006 sub-cabinet meeting’s purpose was to arrange a meeting between Abe and President Hu Jintao. Japan is represented in the talks, dubbed a "comprehensive policy dialogue," by Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi and China by Deputy Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo. The Chinese are moving fast too to respond to Japan’s overtures for more investments in China, given the current trends of what Japan Big Business sector perceives as political instability in Southeast Asia. At the earliest, a Sino-Japanese summit could take place on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting in mid-November 2006 in Hanoi.

Sources:

Talks open with China to lay summit groundwork (Japan Times, 24 September 2006)

Abe to run PM's Office like the White House (Straits Times, 23 September 2006)

Neighbours and foes (Straits Times, 23 September 2006)