A sharp turn after July elections?

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A sharp turn after July elections?

It has become almost conventional wisdom among international relations experts in Korea that Japan is poised to take a sharp rightward and nationalistic turn after the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe triumphs in the polls on July 21. The logic goes like this: The Abe government has won popular support with quantitative easing and stimulus spending under “Abenomics” and polls show that he has enough backing to win back control of the Upper House in two weeks.

Once Abe has control of the Upper House, he will not have to dissolve the Lower House for several years, giving him a green light to pursue whatever ideological agenda he personally favors. The argument is that he is being quiet for now on sensitive issues such as visiting the Yasukuni Shrine or revising official apologies for the past, but after sweeping the polls he will reopen all these Pandora’s boxes.

However, I am not certain that conventional wisdom is right at all.

First, Abe’s popularity stems not from his ideological agenda but from his more effective stewardship of the economy. His senior-most aides make it very clear that after the election their government will prioritize the policies they must pursue to keep the economy on track. The first two arrows of “Abenomics” were the easy part. Now the Prime Minister must implement the “Third Arrow” to sustain economic growth. This will include deregulation, labor mobility, corporate tax cuts and negotiations for entry into the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government is set to introduce an increase in the consumption tax in order to fight fiscal deficits and must begin reopening shuttered nuclear power plants in order to keep energy prices from killing growth. There is no room for politically contentious issues such as constitutional revision given these challenging but indispensable tasks.

Second, coalition and factional politics will constrain Mr. Abe on ideological issues. Within the LDP, Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba is poised to challenge Mr. Abe for the leadership of the Party if he falters on the economy. Ishiba is a national security realist, but more moderate on ideological issues. The LDP will also have to take account of its coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, which has a pacifist brand centered on opposition to revision of the Japanese Constitution.

Meanwhile, the new parties on the right that had been flirting with going into coalition with Mr. Abe on a nationalistic agenda have collapsed politically. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s Japan Restoration Party imploded as a national political force when he made offensive comments on comfort women that earned the rebuke of the Japanese government and public, not to mention the governments of Korea and the United States. His party, once seen as a major new force, is now likely to win only a small handful of seats in the upcoming election. That leaves the left-leaning Komeito in a more powerful position.

Finally, Mr. Abe will be keeping a close eye on Washington. The Obama administration has made it clear to Tokyo in private that it looks askance at any surfacing of historical issues that would antagonize Korea and weaken U.S.-Japan-ROK diplomatic and security cooperation. Washington has delivered that message clumsily and inconsistently at times, but there is no doubt in Tokyo that a backlash from the United States is possible and that it would be devastating politically for the pro-alliance LDP and for Japan in the region. This is not to say that the Obama administration is unhappy with Mr. Abe’s security agenda - quite the opposite. U.S. defense officials and experts generally welcome plans by Japan to revise interpretations of the constitution to allow more latitude for collective self-defense and integration with U.S. forces in a contingency. What U.S. defense officials want to avoid is any gratuitous statements or gestures on sensitive historical issues that complicate regional acceptance of these enhancements to the U.S.-Japan alliance.

There is both clarity and ambiguity in the Abe administration’s stance on these sensitive issues. The government has been clear that it will stick with the 1994 Kono and 1995 Murayama statements apologizing for comfort women and Japan’s wars in Asia and Mr. Abe and his allies have been careful in their public statements during the current election campaign.

On the other hand, the prime minister has not ruled out a visit to Yasukuni Shrine and his spokesman has said that the prime minister would like to think about a forward looking statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in 2015. It appears that Seoul’s stance right now is to take a “wait-and-see” attitude towards Japan. That stance is premised on a broad assumption that the Abe administration will be more unpredictable after victory in July elections.

The Park administration should re-examine both its assumptions and policies towards Japan. Japan is not necessarily poised to make a sharp rightward turn after the July elections for all the reasons described above. Indeed, if that is a concern for Seoul, then there needs to be a strategy for engaging Japanese political leadership to continue building step-by-step confidence measures going forward. Meanwhile, Korean foreign policy now rests on two pillars: strong U.S.-ROK alliance ties and greater outreach to China on economic issues and North Korea. These are both worthy objectives. Yet neither pillar can be effective if diplomacy with Japan is on hold.

From Washington’s perspective, strong U.S.-ROK alliance ties rest in part on effective management of ROK-Japan ties (just as American officials tell Japan that the credibility of Abe’s pro-U.S.-Japan alliance stance also rests on advancement of Korea-Japan ties). Nor will Korea’s outreach to China work if Beijing thinks that Seoul is shunning Tokyo. A Korean foreign policy that seems detached from Japan will only tempt Chinese leaders to think they can establish longer-term hegemonic influence over the Korean peninsula. That will limit Korean influence on solving real problems on the peninsula in the near term.

The roots of the current tension between Japan and Korea are political and not strategic. But the implications are profoundly strategic for Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. It is therefore important to assess both the risks and opportunities in Korea-Japan relations with great precision.

*The author is a senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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