By Feng Zhaokui
Shinzo Abe was elected the new president of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party on September 20 and is therefore to become Japan's new prime minister.
People are concerned about how the incoming prime minister would address diplomatic relations, especially China-Japan ties, which are caught in the worst impasse since the rapprochement in 1972.
As a protege, hand-picked and groomed by Junichro Koizumi, Abe is very likely to inherit Koizumi's neo-conservatism attitude. The eccentric personal style of the outgoing prime minister is, however, hard to imitate.
At the same time, the Japanese are expecting a politician whose behavior is dictated by reason rather than whimsical impulses. The Japanese public want a leader who demonstrates much more flexibility in handling diplomatic matters, never abandoning the nurturing of good relations with their Asian neighbors while consolidating the nation's relations with the United States.
Judging from Abe's performance as a politician and from his election pledges, it is predicted that the new prime minister would adopt a more flexible policy, which is more balanced than his maverick predecessor's, towards China and the Republic of Korea (ROK).
Abe could steer clear of sensitive issues such as paying homage to the Yasukuni Shrine which honors war criminals among Japan's war dead. But on the other hand, Abe could be more hawkish in defending the "national interests" as he envisions them and would focus more on strategic maneuvers to achieve his ends, in contrast with Koizumi's emphasis on "personal conviction" and reason-proof obstinacy.
Abe pledged in his election platform to mend the damaged relations with Japan's neighbors, China and ROK in particular, but also claimed that such relation-mending efforts were two-way affairs, saying that Japan's door is wide open for China and ROK.
He thus threw the ball into the court of China and ROK, as though the latter should take the initiative to walk into the gate of Japan, instead of the other way around.
The current unhealthy status of China-Japan relations should be blamed on Koizumi's headstrong handling of the bilateral ties.
Shinzo Abe must understand that China's door is wide open for him.
Top politicians should cushion the negative impact of narrow nationalist feelings on diplomacy as much as possible.
This is especially important for Japanese politicians when handling relations with Northeast Asian countries, which fell victim to Japanese aggression in the 19th and 20th centuries and, moreover, submitted to Japanese colonial rule.
In this context, the narrow-minded nationalism on the part of Japan could pose a major threat to the regional stability.
Abe trumpets that Japan should join the ranks of the countries, which set the rules of the game and pushes for diplomacy based on Japan's own ideas and initiative. If he, however, simply copies Koizumi's extra pro-US policy, his idea of diplomacy based on Japan's own initiative would come to no avail.
As carefully selected successor to Koizumi, Abe puts forward the idea of US-Japanese alliance for the good of the world and Asia, indicating that he will follow his mentor's pro-US line.
In the tenure of Koizumi as Japanese prime minister, Japan adopted the diplomatic approach of getting closer to the United States and estranging from China.
This was meant to maintain certain degrees of tension in its relations with China and, in turn, make Japanese citizens feel "the pressure from China," - diverting pressure away from Koizumi's diplomacy of leaning exclusively towards the United States.
Now that a new prime minister is taking the helm, people have reason to hope that Abe will not tread on the same old rut.
Ichiro Ozawa, head of the Democratic Party of Japan, puts forward the idea that Japan should have an alliance with the United States based on equality.
Furthermore, Ozawa urges the formation of an "equilateral triangle" between Japan, China and the United States. The idea is rather diametrically opposed to Koizumi's excessively pro-US policy.
Abe now faces a political landscape that is different from that in Koizumi's tenure. A rising and ambitious Democratic Party is bent on taking over the prime minister's office in 2007. Restrained by such factors, Abe, therefore, are unlikely to always have his own way as his willful predecessor did.
Over the issue of revising the constitution, Abe has always resented the ninth article in Japan's post-war pacifist constitution, which states that Japan abandons wars.
Abe regards this article of contradicting the rights of an independent nation. He also resents that Japan is deprived of the right of belligerence. So the ninth article in the constitution is a sore point in the eyes of Abe, and must be removed. He vows to formulate a new Japanese constitution that fits the 21st century, urging that the current constitution be re-interpreted. He wants to formulate the new constitution in five years.
Sixty years have passed since Japan's post-war constitution was enacted and great changes have thereby taken place both inside Japan and on the international political and economic terrain.
It is, therefore, reasonable that Japan revises its constitution and the revision should not be equated to raising the specter of militarism.
The international community should be alerted to the attempts of the Japanese right-wingers to overthrow the ninth article, which is regarded the core of its pacifist constitution.
These extremists want to lead Japan away from the road of peaceful development, along which the country has been traveling ever since and end of World War II.
They are doing all this by exploiting Japanese citizens' justifiable demand for revising the constitution.
Taku Yamazaki, former vice-president of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, worries that Abe, a member of the post-war generation, is simply unable to understand the horror of war and how valuable peace is. Abe can be easily deviated from the track of settling disputes via dialogue or by diplomatic means and is prone to emphasize strength, in the opinion of Yamazaki.
Abe is likely to boost military expenditure in an around-about way in his term as prime minister, taking into account of his outlooks of history and war, according to Yamazaki.
On the matter of the Yasukuni Shrine, Abe has ever backed Koizumi in his visits to the war shrine and he himself visited Yasukuni in April this year, though shunning publicity. He has so far remained ambiguous about whether or not he would visit the war shrine in the capacity of prime minister. But he cannot remain evasive forever, now that he is prime minister. He must show where he stands definitely and unambiguously.
Koizumi's repeated Yasukuni visits have served to erect a towering barrier to the improvement of the China-Japan relations. Abe's position on this matter will be a touchstone to test his sincerity in bettering ties with China and ROK.
The author is a researcher with the Institute of Japanese Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
(China Daily September 25, 2006)