Shinzo Abe, the man set to become Japan’s next prime minister, wasted no time after his election victory yesterday in staking Tokyo’s claim on islands at the centre of a dispute with China.
In one of his first broadcast interviews after the result the hawkish Abe, of the winning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), said Beijing had to make more effort to rub along well with Japan.
“Japan and China need to share the recognition that having good relations is in the national interests of both countries,” he said. “China lacks this recognition a little bit. I want them to think anew about mutually beneficial strategic relations.”
Tokyo and Beijing have been at loggerheads for decades over the sovereignty of a small chain of islands in the East China Sea.
The dispute flared up badly in September after Tokyo nationalised islands that it calls the Senkakus, but China knows as the Diaoyus. Protests erupted across China and Japanese businesses suffered boycotts or attacks.
Chinese boats have plied waters near the chain most days since, and on Thursday Beijing sent a plane to overfly them.
Japan scrambled fighter jets to head it off.
“China is challenging the fact that (the islands) are Japan’s inherent territory,” said Abe. “Our objective is to stop the challenge. We don’t intend to worsen relations between Japan and China.”
Abe has pushed an agenda that includes upgrading the country’s “Self Defence Forces” to make them a full-scale military, and has spoken of wanting to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution.
He has pledged that he would not concede even “one millimetre” in the territorial row with China.
But analysts say at least some of this could be posturing.
They point to the pragmatism of his earlier 2006-2007 tenure as prime minister, when his opinions on controversial issues that could aggravate China were ambiguous or were just left unsaid.
As premier he stayed away from Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japan’s war dead, including Class A war criminals, and is a running sore in Tokyo’s relations with its neighbours.
He also made China his first foreign destination.
Some commentators say in office he is unlikely to hew to the line he has pushed during the campaign and may try to prove he can work with China and South Korea, where distrust of Japan also remains.
Abe has blamed the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) for heightening tensions with China and allowing its ties with Washington to fray.
He said mending the relationship would be his top priority, and Washington would be his first port of call.
“We must rebuild the ties of the Japan-US alliance. The Japan-US alliance must come first,” he told private broadcaster Nippon TV.