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Japan: Playing with Fire?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Photo: Mark Waters, Dreamstime.com)

In elections held on July 21, Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, convincingly won 115 of the 242 seats in the upper house of the National Diet, the national legislature. The victory gives the LDP a three-fold dominance: the seat of the prime minister and control of the two houses of government.

A realignment of this kind is significant, given Japan's status as the world's third-largest economy. But in terms of geopolitical maneuvering, the significance is amplified in important ways.

Victory has made it possible to fulfill Abe's plan to alter the Japanese Constitution. This is a hawkish move, but has growing resonance in Japan in recent years. The plan has three phases. Phase One was sealed during Abe's first term, which started in September 2006 and ended a year later. He fought for, and passed, the National Referendum Law, which put in place a mechanism that will make an eventual public rubberstamping of an amendment an inevitability. Phase Two was control of the legislature, and the LDP now dominates both houses.

Phase Three is constitutional revision: editing and renaming the Renunciation of War chapter, delineating a National Defence Force under the leadership of the prime minister and even restoring the Rising Sun national flag alongside the country's traditional anthem.

As a punishment for aggression during World War II, U.S.-led occupying forces imposed severe restrictions on Japan on the use of its military force for combat. Now, for the first time in 70-plus years, the political stars in Japan may be aligning to enable the dismantling of these restrictions. With changes to the Constitution, Japan can transform its role in world affairs, with a large, reconstituted and technologically advanced defense force.

Japan's potential rearmament is also driven by other factors. For example, the United States is asking Japan to become an active participant in its efforts to contain China. This was evident in extensive joint military training exercises (called "unprecedented" and "historic") off the coast of California in the last four months. The simulated island and coastal invasions were clearly meant to send a message to China.

China will not take a rearmed Japan lightly, especially when relations between the two countries are already at a low. Responding to Abe's defense-related statements, highlighted by Japan's first increase in military spending in 11 years, China issued the following statement:

"In a short term, Abe may benefit from catering to the rightists, but in the long run, what he has done is equivalent to playing with fire. … In recent years, it is irresponsible remarks and deeds made by Japanese leaders that flamed up [these] rightists. However, one day in the future, when [their views] expand to an uncontrollable scale, Tokyo will have to eat the bitter fruit. What's worse, innocent and peace-loving people will bear the consequences."

But Abe faces hurdles that may put his plans in jeopardy. His party has won control, but not a majority, of the upper house (with 115 of the 242 seats). Although coalitions give the party majority control, the numbers still leave him short of the two-thirds needed for constitutional reform. This is germane, considering that the LDP's coalition partner, the New Komeito Party (which holds 20 seats), has come out strongly against Abe-style defense proposals. The Nippon Ishin No Kai (Japan Restoration Party) may be a more suitable collaborator, though their nine seats fail to make them a relevant major player.

So far, the self-named Abenomics program has been a winning formula that has trumped the opposition, but this may not necessarily hold true on constitutional changes. Besides, Abe may have touched some notes that resonate with the public, but public opinion diverges on key issues. For example, the majority of people are against restarting the country's now-idle nuclear industry. The majority does not even favor the change in the Constitution.

Abe's ability to find a coalition partner that moves his current agenda forward has implications for India. Japan and India are cooperating on a number of high-stakes projects, including the financing of transportation infrastructure in several parts of India, a nuclear agreement that will facilitate the construction of 18 Indian reactors by 2020, and a security deal recently inked in the wake of Chinese border infractions. With the bilateral relationship now seemingly fortified by a unified legislature, Indian-Japanese projects and plans are likely to proceed even sooner.

Will a firm coalition come together to back Abe's ambitious policies? The elections results might suggest that it will, but the conscience of the people indicates otherwise. Or will a new face of Japan precipitate a conflict of unpredictable dimensions?

Michael Burns, Ph.D. is a university instructor and documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on political issues involving military conflict as well as perceptions of democracy. He is based in Mumbai. This article was originally published by Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations: http://www.gatewayhouse.in/.

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