Why Japan's New Nationalist Leader Is The Right Man To Ease Tensions With China

Can Abe fix it?
Can Abe fix it?
Takehiro Masutomo

BEIJING - After a five-year hiatus, Shinzo Abe is back as Japan’s Prime Minister. What will this mean for China-Japan relations, which are at a historic 40-year low because of the Senkaku Islands dispute?

According to observers, Chinese officials had been expecting the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to step down from power, so they knew it wasn’t very useful to start negotiations with then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to repair the two countries’ relations.

The hope instead is to reset bilateral relations with Abe who, during his previous premiership in 2006, agreed to develop “mutually beneficial strategic relations.”

The way Abe reorganized his cabinet and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) cadres after taking office, can be seen as signals to China. The first signal is that Masahiko Komura, the President of the Japan-China Friendship Parliamentarians’ Union will remain LDP’s Vice-President. Abe made plans right away to send him to China as his special envoy.

The second signal is that the party’s “doves” have been awarded foreign minister and defense minister posts so as to avoid “hawks” interfering in foreign policy.

The third signal is that Abe’s cabinet secretariat will play the leading role. Shotaro Yachi is serving as the cabinet’s diplomatic advisor to replace the inexperienced foreign secretary. In 2006, as deputy foreign minister, Shotaro Yachi had played a critical role in Abe’s “ice-breaking journey” to China.

On Dec. 25, Masato Kitera, the new Japanese Ambassador to China, took up office in Beijing. He is a top-class career diplomat. Resilient and good at communicating, Kitera will not get into bickering with the government – unlike Uichiro Niwa, his predecessor. In the context of improving China-Japan ties, this appointment will be of help. However, Kitera is not Superman, and Japan should not count on him alone to improve the two countries’ bilateral relations.

A few months ago, widespread anti-Japanese demonstrations caused decreased sales of Japanese cars in China. The amount of Chinese tourists travelling to Japan has also dropped. This is a stark contrast with trade between China and other countries – though China’s growth momentum is weakening, but still expanding. Given Japan’s current sluggish economic outlook and the fact that Japanese companies are losing their market share in China, the financial sector – which has a close relationship with Abe – is eager for the new Prime Minister to repair the ties between the two countries. Abe will not ignore their pleas.

Pragmatists v. hawks

In a survey conducted by Japanese state-owned broadcasting station, NHK, in October, 44% of respondents said the Japanese government “should attach greater importance to improving relations with China” whereas 41% said “Japan should take a tougher stance in face of China.”

Shinzo Abe is a pragmatist. Unlike the DJP administration, he differentiates between election mode and ruling mode. From the Sept. run-off to win the LDP incumbency, to the LDP’s victory in the general election, and then to his assuming office, he has gradually reduced his hawkish ambitions to a realistic pitch.

For instance, when China’s anti-Japanese demonstrations were at their peak, Abe proposed ideas for strengthening the actual control of the Senkaku Islands and for modifying Japan’s Self-Defense Forces Law to defend Japan’s territorial waters. However, these policies were not present during the LDP convention. On the contrary, as the general election grew closer, Abe said that he would like to return bilateral ties to the "initial point of mutually beneficial strategic relations."

"We must rebuild the ties of the Japan-US alliance. The Japan-US alliance must come first," Abe told Nippon TV in his first interview after winning the elections. "We also need to deepen ties with Asia. I want to build up ties with Asian nations including India and Australia. After enhancing our diplomacy, I want to improve relations with China.

In his first news conference after the election, Abe spoke further about Chinese policy: "We're not in an environment to start leadership-level talks or visit China immediately, but we will continue with persistent dialogue to improve our relations."

The world and region have both seen major changes since the first time Abe served as Prime Minister. At that time Japan had the capability of adopting a “blockade strategy” by unifying U.S. and China’s neighboring countries. However, Japan’s economy and trade has grown more dependent on China, while the U.S.’s position as a superpower has been weakened by the financial crisis. The U.S. hopes that China-Japan relations can be improved rather than having to go to war with China over the Senkaku Islands dispute.

Shinzo Abe’s diplomatic agenda is also a sign of better bilateral ties to come. He plans to visit the U.S. in late January, after President Obama’s second inauguration. Many experts have predicted that apart from talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the two will also talk about repairing relations between Japan, South Korea and China.

There is also a chance that when Abe attends the inauguration of Park Guen-Hye – the newly elected President of South Korea – on Feb. 25, he will take the opportunity to have contacts with his Chinese counterparts.

Spring thaw

However China watchers in Japan believe that only after the next annual meetings of the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, usually held in March, and when the new Chinese leadership has consolidated its power, will there be the possibly of a turning point in China-Japan bilateral relations.

But since several summit meetings are concentrated in the second half of this year, the two countries’ heads will have many opportunities for mediation.

The tense situation around the Senkaku Islands is still ongoing and sudden incidents cannot be ruled out. Sending civil servants to the Senkaku Islands or paying homage at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where the ashes of Japanese war criminals are kept – are some of the cards in Abe's hands. How he plays them will largely depend on China’s attitude.

In addition, considering that since the end of Junichiro Koizumi’s administration there has been a new prime minister each year, Abe, who is on his second mandate, is paying special attention to July’s Senate elections and is keeping a low profile in the hope of securing a longer period of power. Recently he emphasized that rebuilding Japan’s economy, which is what Japanese people are most eager about, was his primary concern. He hopes to see reap the fruits of economic recovery as soon as possible so as to guarantee a victory for his party in the July elections.

If the LDP and the populist right-wing Japan Restoration Party led by outspoken former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara win the majority of seats, the possibility of a break-up between the LDP and its coalition ally, the pro-peace New Komeito Party (NKP) is not to be ruled out.

Were that the case, it is possible that Abe will turn to more conservative and hawkish policies such as the exercise of the right of collective self-defense and a revision of Japan’s constitution. For those who are sincerely hoping for cordial China-Japan relations, this would be a disaster. Hence, insightful people from both countries should seize this rare “time-window” to mend Asia's most important bilateral relationship, which took generations of hard work to develop.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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