Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is regularly derided as a dangerous right-wing nationalist by domestic and foreign critics. They will find much to criticize in his latest anti-China salvos. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Abe spent the past several days stating in unusually clear terms that “changes in the status quo [in East Asia] by force cannot be tolerated.” Abe is referring narrowly to Japan’s territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands that lie at the southern end of the East China Sea. The islands, also claimed by Taiwan, have been the focal point of more than three years of paramilitary face-offs between the two countries and have caused the deterioration of Sino-Japanese diplomatic ties to their lowest point in decades. Some could argue that Abe is being pushed into such statements by his concern that Washington has been less than supportive in the Senkakus dispute. Tokyo’s sense of isolation has clearly grown over the past several years.
In a separate interview with WSJ, however, Abe made a bolder claim, one that may call into question how far he intends to press his policy of countering Chinese pressure. “I’ve realized that Japan is expected to exert leadership not just on the economic front, but also in the field of security in the Asia-Pacific,” he said, according to the interview. Abe is referring to other numerous territorial disputes China has with Southeast Asian nations, in particular over the Spratley and Paracel islands in the South China Seas. Nations including Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia all have claims on the atolls and tiny islands of one or more of these chains. Yet none have a navy or coast guard able to counter either the private Chinese fishing boats that regularly fish in the contested waters or the Chinese patrol boats that back them up when confronted. Vietnam and the Philippines have taken the lead in trying to foment regional opposition to China’s assertive behavior and territorial claims.
Yet most Southeast Asian nations also make very clear that they do not want to be forced into a position of “choosing” between China and other great powers. They all have close trade relations with China and many receive aid from Beijing. More importantly, they fear being drawn into a military confrontation and then being abandoned. Thus, Abe’s claim that other nations expect Japan to exert leadership is undoubtedly true in an abstract sense, but requires a deft and subtle touch. Beijing needs to understand that it cannot expect a free hand in redrawing borders to its liking, but it also should not be goaded into an even more paranoid worldview than it already has.
Abe can do more for regional stability by slowly and patiently building up Japan’s military strength and extending its expertise and cooperation to nations struggling to develop their self-defense capability, like the Philippines, than by making somewhat grandiose claims about Tokyo’s ability to counter a China that has far outstripped it in numbers of ships and planes. The day that Asia’s nations look to Japan for leadership in security issues has not yet arrived, but Abe should do everything he can to make Japan seen as a trustworthy and productive partner, which often means speaking softly and carrying a bigger stick.