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Sunday December 23, 2012

Will Mr Abe return to old health problems?

Abe: Adamant not to compromise over
sovereignty issue. Abe: Adamant not to compromise over sovereignty issue.

JAPAN’S former, and now future, prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been welcomed back to the job he threw away five years ago because, according to a story he told Tokyo-based Bungei Shunju magazine, he was suffering ulcerative colitis or an intermittent inflammatory bowel disease. That doesn’t bode well for his Cabinet, which is expected to be launched before the end of this year.

Abe, currently the country’s prime minister-elect, has promised to do his utmost to rebuild Japan as a “new country” in contrast to the “beautiful country” he vowed to turn it into when he succeeded Junichiro Koizumi in September 2006. The new promise is apt, for Japan stands at a crossroads and the direction it takes is critical to determining whether it can remain a leading power in the world.

Japanese voters know this fully well. As a matter of fact, they expected that Koizumi, who revived the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) shortly before he stepped down, could make Japan a “normal country” after the economic collapse of the early 1990s. Abe quit, paving the way for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to end the LDP’s half-century of almost uninterrupted rule.

When Yukio Hatoyama became the DPJ’s first prime minister in 2009, the Japanese hoped he would find the right path to ending the country’s economic woes.

However, his party botched its majority control of the Lower House of the Diet, and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was forced to call a snap election he knew he would lose.

The disillusioned Japanese voters who previously voted in the DPJ, expecting it would save them, returned the LDP to power, with reservations. They don’t expect Abe to make a “new country” out of their once proud Land of the Rising Sun.

The tasks facing Abe are hopelessly tremendous. He may implement bold monetary easing measures and improve infrastructure as part of reinvigorating regional economies and investing for the future.

But lavish public works projects, to which the past LDP governments relied on as a method for staying in power, are not going to work wonders any more. How can the new administration reduce its reliance on nuclear energy on the one hand and achieve sustainable economic growth on the other?

Remember that Japan’s increasingly large trade deficit is partly caused by the increased fuel costs of thermal power generation, which is functioning as a substitute for idle nuclear reactors. While the economy is expected to remain sluggish at best, Abe wants to amend Japan’s “peace” constitution, turn self-defence forces into a regular army, navy and air force, and improve deteriorating relations between Japan and China. Can he make a fix?

Like his mentor Koizumi, Abe is a nationalist who has provoked anger in China through his remarks on “comfort women”, who were used for sex by the Japanese imperial army during World War II. This time, he has vowed “to protect Japan’s land and sea and the lives of the Japanese people, no matter what” when dealing with Beijing in the sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku Islands, called the Diaoyus in China and the Diaoyutais in Taiwan.

The Chinese sent a patrol aircraft over what they claim to be their inherent territory last week and Japanese fighters were scrambled to keep an eye on the first intrusion into its air space since 1958. Tensions will continue to mount, but Abe is unable to end the row between Japan and China any time soon.

There was a chance that Taiwan might end its spat with Japan concerning the traditional fishing grounds of the Diaoyutais. While Noda was in office, Japan held a preparatory meeting for the long-delayed 27th round of fishery talks, regardless of China’s opposition.

Now that Abe has made a comeback, Japan is no longer eager to make a compromise with Taiwan over the disputed island chain, which is rich in fish stocks and is believed to have a vast wealth of energy resources under its nearby sea bed.

Both Taipei and Beijing demand that Japan roll back its decision to nationalise the three Senkaku islands. Abe can’t and won’t do so. Japan insists that its sovereignty over the Senkakus is indisputable, albeit the dispute persists. The sovereignty issue can’t be shelved and the situation will get worse.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. But Abe isn’t as tough as his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, and maternal granduncle, Eisaku Sato — both outstanding Japanese prime ministers.

So when Abe finds he can’t cope with the urgent tasks facing him in his second term as prime minister, his ulcerative colitis will return, probably with a vengeance, and he will have to call it a day just as he did five years ago.

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