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Japan: Shinzo Abe sweeps snap poll, back as PM

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As Japanese voters have given him a fresh endorsement he sought badly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has swept to a comfortable victory in a snap election on October 22 Sunday, handing him a mandate to harden his already hawkish stance on North Korea and re-energies the world’s number-three economy (after USA and China) .

Split opposition vote helped Japanese premier to fifth election victory. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) benefitted from a weak and splintered opposition, with the two main parties facing him created only a matter of weeks ago. 

Abe’s conservative coalition was on track to win 311 seats in the 465-seat parliament, according to a projection published by private broadcaster TBS, putting the nationalist blue blood on course to become Japan’s longest-serving leader.

Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) coalition with the Komeito party has won 313 of the 465 seats in the lower house of Japan’s parliamentary Diet – which gives them the power to table a revision to the constitution.  Abe had previously announced he wanted to revise a clause which renounces war, known as Article 9, to formally recognize Japan’s military, which is known as the “self-defence forces”. He had set a deadline of 2020 to achieve this highly contentious task. But on Monday he appeared to ditch this target, saying it was “not set in a concrete schedule”. He said he hoped to “form a strong agreement” on the issue among parties in parliament, and “gain trust” from the Japanese public.

The poll, conducted Tuesday through Thursday, finds 207 single-seat districts and 55 proportional-representation seats leaning toward or strongly favoring Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, roughly the same as in an Oct. 10-11 poll conducted as campaigning officially began. The party held 290 seats before Abe dissolved the lower house in September for the snap election.

The poll suggests the coalition may capture 63.9% of the chamber, down from 68.2% before the election. This would leave it just short of the 310 seats — a two-thirds supermajority — needed to advance Abe’s goal of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution to formally acknowledge the role of the country’s Self-Defense Forces. The coalition would be forced to seek opposition support, and how that proceeds would depend on which party gains the upper hand in the opposition.

Millions of Japanese braved torrential rain and driving winds to vote, as a typhoon bears down on the country with many heeding warnings to cast their ballots early. “I support Abe’s stance not to give in to North Korea’s pressure,” said one voter.

Earlier, PM Abe’s ruling coalition was forecast to win a convincing majority of the seats in Japan’s lower house in Sunday’s election, easily seeing off a challenge from a divided opposition, exit polls by major news organizations show.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition was on track to win around 300 of the 465 seats in the Diet’s lower house, while Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s upstart Party of Hope has lost much of its initial momentum. But The Nikkei Inc. survey indicated that some uncertainty remains on the eve of the Japanese election, with 23% of the 289 single-seat constituencies and 16% of the 176 proportional-representation seats still considered close races.

The Party of Hope, which picked up many candidates from the former Democratic Party in an effective merger, was favored in the earlier poll to lead the opposition, with 69 seats. But the party has failed to gain widespread support, owing partly to Koike’s comments about “excluding” Democratic lawmakers deemed too liberal

The left-leaning Constitutional Democratic Party, which includes many of those former Democrats left out by the Party of Hope, is rapidly catching up. The party’s projected seat total has risen from 45 to 54 as it attracts more of the opposition interest away from the Party of Hope. The Constitutional Democrats, headed by Yukio Edano — who served as chief cabinet secretary in a former Democratic Party of Japan government, could become the second-largest party in the lower house.

The Japanese Communist Party looked set to lose three seats, bringing its total to 18, while the Japan Innovation Party would drop from 14 to 10 amid struggles in its main support base of Osaka. Independents are expected to take 30 seats, up from 28 in the earlier poll. The gains likely owe to growing support for former Democrats who chose not to join the Party of Hope.

The new centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party fared slightly better than expected but was still far behind Abe.

It was unclear in the immediate aftermath of the vote whether Abe’s coalition would retain its two-thirds “supermajority.” Such a “supermajority” would allow Abe to propose changes to Japan’s US-imposed constitution that forces it to “renounce” war and effectively limits its military to a self-defence role.

The short 12-day campaign was dominated by the economy and the global crisis over North Korea, which has threatened to “sink” Japan into the sea. Nationalist Abe stuck to a hardline stance throughout, stressing that Japan “would not waver” in the face of an increasingly belligerent regime in Pyongyang.

The exit polls for lower house election put Abe’s ruling coalition far ahead of the Party of Hope, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s new party that was once thought to pose a serious challenge to the status quo. Koike’s decision to bar left-leaning opposition members from joining the party is haunting her: The Constitutional Democratic Party, formed by those very rejects, is polling better than the Party of Hope. Explore the Nikkei Asian Review’s in-depth election coverage here.

Support for the Party of Hope founded by popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike fizzled after an initial blaze of publicity and was on track to win around 50 seats. Speaking from Paris where she was attending an event in her capacity as leader of the world’s biggest city, a sullen-faced Koike told public broadcaster NHK she feared a “very severe result”.

The campaign was marked by a near-constant drizzle in large parts of the country and rallies frequently took place under shelter and a sea of umbrellas. But this did not dampen the enthusiasm of hundreds of doughty, sash-wearing parliamentary hopefuls, who have driven around in minibuses pleading for votes via loudspeaker and bowing deeply to every potential voter.

Although voters turned out in their millions to back Abe, support for the 63-year-old is lukewarm and surveys showed his decision to call a snap election a year earlier than expected was unpopular. Voter Etsuko Nakajima, 84, told AFP: “I totally oppose the current government. Morals collapsed. I’m afraid this country will be broken.” “I think if the LDP takes power, Japan will be in danger”, added the pensioner.

The three-pronged combination of ultra-loose monetary policy, huge government spending and structural reform has catapulted the stock market to a 21-year high but failed to stoke inflation and growth has remained sluggish.

Despite the sabre-rattling from North Korea, many voters said reviving the once-mighty Japanese economy was the top priority, with Abe’s trademark “Abenomics” policy failing to trickle down to the general public.

Observation

The LDP’s victory is simply because the opposition couldn’t form a united front. Abe saw his popularity plummet in recent months while embroiled in political scandals, but enjoyed a sudden recovery after North Korea fired two missiles over the Japanese island of Hokkaido.

Abe’s victory is in large part due to the chaos of Japan’s opposition parties. In the lead-up to the snap election, all eyes were on the recently-formed conservative Party of Hope led by the charismatic Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, with some speculating that it would make significant gains. But in the end it was overtaken by the centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party which emerged as the biggest opposition party, and which opposes Abe’s plan to amend Article 9. Ms Koike, who was in Paris for a business trip during the election, told reporters she was personally taking responsibility for the result. Japanese media quoted her as saying her “words and deeds” had caused “displeasure” to voters.

Abe’s election win also raises his chances of securing a third three-year-term as leader of the LDP when the party votes next September. That would give him the opportunity to become Japan’s longest serving prime minister, having been elected in 2012.

The comfortable election win is likely to stiffen Abe’s resolve to tackle North Korea’s nuclear menace, as the key US regional ally seeks to exert maximum pressure on the regime in Pyongyang after it fired two missiles over Japan in the space of a month.

Abe said his coalition’s win was a “vote of confidence” from the public, and based on that “we would dramatically show counter-measures against the North Korea threat”. He said he would discuss these measures with US President Donald Trump, who is visiting Japan next month, as well as with other world powers such as Russia and China. He said they would exert “stronger pressure” on North Korea, adding: “I will make sure the Japanese public is safe, and safeguard our nation.” 

Even if an amendment to the constitution is passed and approved by both houses in the Diet – which Abe’s coalition controls – it still needs to be put to a public vote in a referendum. Abe two years ago successfully managed to push for a re-interpretation of the constitution to allow troops to fight overseas under certain circumstances, which attracted widespread protests.

Abe has promised strong “counter-measures” against North Korea, after winning a decisive victory in Sunday’s election.  Abe had called an early election for a greater mandate to deal with “crises”, including the growing threat from Pyongyang, which has fired missiles over Japan in recent months. His ruling coalition has retained a two-thirds majority in parliament. This paves the way for Abe to amend Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution. The prime minister has previously called for the existence of the country’s armed forces to be formalized; a controversial move which he says is needed to strengthen Japan’s defence but which critics say is a step towards re-militarization.

In the post poll scenario, Japan-US relations would be watched carefully. Though there are no cracks in the bilateral ties, there seems to develop some albeit small distance between Abe and Trump  Abe’s pledge of tough diplomacy with North Korea is rhetoric that would have played well with the Japanese public, but it is unclear what it means in concrete terms. Tokyo has no diplomatic or economic relations with North Korea, and has poor relations with Pyongyang’s closest ally China, so the most Abe can do is strengthen Japan’s defences and stick closely to the USA

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East Asia

How China is helping Iran skirt US sanctions

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Shortly after the Trump administration reimposed sweeping sanctions on Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said eight countries, most notable China, would be exempted from the draconian sanctions on buying Iranian crude oil.

Shortly after the Trump administration reimposed sweeping sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an important announcement. It was a calculated move to avoid a major embarrassment. The hawks in the power corridors of Washington had anticipated the backlash of sanctions on US foreign policy with many global powers rebuffing Trump’s foolhardy move.

Pompeo said eight countries would be exempted from the draconian sanctions on buying Iranian crude oil due to special circumstances. The countries included China, India, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey.

Many of these countries had quite clearly indicated that they would not be cutting oil imports from Iran under the US pressure, most importantly China, Turkey, and India – three of Iran’s largest oil customers.

While India has its own strategic interests in maintaining good relations with Tehran, for instance, the Chabahar port project in Sistan-Baluchistan, Turkey’s relations with Washington have hit a new low following sanctions and trade tariffs imposed by the US.

China, which has emerged as a viable counterweight to US hegemony in the world and a protagonist of new international economic policy, has unambiguously reaffirmed its commitment to keep alive the Iran nuclear deal and stand by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

On November 5, when the petroleum-related sanctions came into effect, Chinese foreign ministry said it will continue to “hold a fair, objective and responsible attitude” and “resolutely safeguard its legitimate rights”, while reiterating its opposition to the unilateral US sanctions.

“China feels sorry for the US’ decision and we noticed that the international world as a whole opposes the practice of such unilateral sanctions,” foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a press briefing.

She said Iran has been seriously fulfilling its obligations under the JCPOA and its efforts have been recognized by the International Atomic Energy Agency dozen times. She also affirmed that China will firmly safeguard its lawful rights while continuing to adhere to JCPOA and urged relevant parties to stand on the “right side of history”.

China has maintained that implementing the Iranian nuclear deal is akin to safeguarding the authority of UN Security Council, basic norms of international law, international non-proliferation treaty and peace and stability in the Middle East.

As one of the remaining signatories of the JCPOA, along with European Union countries who are exploring options to circumvent the US sanctions, Beijing wants to keep the deal alive. China, believe experts, is in a better position compared to other Asian countries as it is not subservient to US interests and is already embroiled in a bitter trade war with Washington.

For all parties of the JCPOA, Iranian crude oil is the main commodity of interest, particularly for Beijing. In 2017, one-third of Iran’s oil was supplied to China, which underlines the significance of oil trade between the two countries. China’s commitment to continue importing oil from Iran is very likely to deal a body blow to US ploy of reducing Iranian oil imports to zero and ‘starving’ the Iranian nation.

Hu Xijin, chief editor of the influential Chinese daily Global Times, told Tehran Times that there was no possibility of Washington reducing the Iranian oil exports to zero, “because Washington lacks righteousness to do so, therefore it can’t have the full support of the international community”.

To continue oil trade in different currencies other than dollar, Iran has been in talks with key allies, including China. On September 29, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Tehran would circumvent sanctions by conducting trade in all currencies to avoid using the US dollar. “You can use your own currency. Sell stuff in your own currency, buy stuff in the other country’s currency, and at the end of a specific period, balance it out in a non-dollar currency. It’s quite possible and may even be profitable,”

China, which is the largest oil importer in the world with around nine million barrels imports every day, has been making concerted efforts to reshape the global oil market with increased usage of its currency in oil trading. If Chinese currency manages to replace the US dollar, it will be a masterstroke.

US has been rendered friendless and isolated in its quest to tear up the Iran deal and force countries to cut oil imports from Iran. European Union has already refused to back down on the Iran deal, exploring ways to develop payment channels to facilitate payments related to Iran’s exports. The goal, according to a statement issued by EU, “is to protect the freedom of other economic operators to pursue legitimate business with Iran”.

Beijing has expressed its full support to the EU’s proposal to set up a “special payments system” to facilitate trade with Iran and safeguard the Iranian nuclear deal, which experts believe will significantly reduce reliance on the US dollar in the global oil trade. That will be a game-changer.

First published in our partner MNA

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East Asia

The Implication of China’s Diplomacy in APEC and ASEAN

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It is truly unusual that the Chinese President Xi Jinping and its Premier Li Keqiang are visiting the same area during nearly the same time: Xi’s visit to APEC from15th to 21st November and Li’s visit to ASEAN on 15th November. Yet, if we look into China’s foreign policy towards this area over the past years since President Xi took power, it is not difficult to understand both Xi’s and Li’s official visits to the “larger Pacific” and the meaning beyond.

As we know, President Xi has reiterated that the Pacific is large enough for the countries involved to share the prosperity with each other. In order to achieve the inclusive rather than exclusive benefits for all, China’s diplomacy aims to reject any kind of unilateralism, trade protectionism and anti-globalization. Given this, Xi’s at APEC and Li’s at AEASN is defined as a signal of China’s diplomacy to further reform and bold openness.

As a rising great country, China is surely eager to expand its investment and trade with the south Pacific area, and Papua New Guinea (PNG) is the first country visited by Chinese president. What is more, PNG joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) early 2018 and then became the first state of Pacific islands to sign the MoU on “The Belt and Road Initiative” construction. As the theme “Harnessing Inclusive Opportunities, Embracing the Digital Future,” the APEC summit will focus on Regional economic integration, digital economy, connectivity, sustainable and inclusive growth and so forth.

Also during Premier Li’s visit to the ASEAN, he highlighted the necessity of the collaboration and mutual benefit among the countries involved on the 21st China-ASEAN leaders meeting. This is also the 21st ASEAN Plus Three Summit (10+3) and the 13th East Asia Summit (EAS).

Quite understandable, since the 1960s, the center of world economy has shifted from North Atlantic to Asia-Pacific, its dynamic growth in the region create countless jobs and push the development of world economy. This is the reason that Asia-Pacific region has the most trade agreements and the most complicated economic architecture around world. APEC and ASEAN, as two institutions that possess most member states, are the very pillars of the tumbledown regional economic architecture. APEC was launched by Australia and later included 21 member states in the region, amongst are United States, China, Japan, the economic giant three of the world economy. ASEAN is an institution that consist of ten small and middle states. Though they are not strong enough to meet the challenges from the power politics alone, ASEAN is a core force that firmly facilitate the economic integration of the whole region of East Asia and the Pacific. No matter what the way they embrace, they are the de facto basic regionalism of Asia-Pacific. The withdrawing of United States from Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and hard-achieved Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) once brought the regional economic architecture a fig leave and strengthened the impact of APEC and ASEAN.

As a result, the two visits of Chinese top leaders to the same region at the same time definitely attract worldwide attention, because they not only represent China’s recent diplomatic focus but also mark the fact that Asia-Pacific region has become one of the vital fields where China’s diplomacy will be actively conducting in terms of the Belt and Road Initiative, and carry on the good-neighbor policy. Since China has argued for creating a peaceful development milieu, to enhance economic transformation and upgrading oversea markets and partners in Asia-Pacific region.

Consider these facets, China, as the second largest economy, aims to promote its well-articulated stance on multilateralism and inclusiveness and globalization. As both President Xi and Premier Li have strongly said that China is ready to work with Pacific island countries to endeavor together and sail for a better future for bilateral relations. For the sake of that goal, China always believes that as long as all the countries involved have firm confidence in each other’s development, cooperation and the future of East Asia, and work closely together and forge ahead, all sides would achieve more and reach a higher level in the next 15 years.

For sure, China belongs to the part of a larger Asia-Pacific family, and the Chinese government defines its goal as the shared prosperity of this region. Therefore, China will continue to work hard and constructively to promote the overall development of impoverished but promising Pacific island countries under the Belt and Road Initiative.

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An uncertain step in moving China-Japan relations

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Authors: Meshach Ampwera  & Luo Xinghuan

On October 26, Chinese President Xi Jinping met Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and praised that both China and Japan have pledged to strengthen bilateral ties amid continuous efforts made by the two nations. Xi said, “Bilateral relations have returned to the right track and gained positive momentum, which is something the two sides should cherish.” As the two largest economies in Asia, China and Japan are also the vital players in Asian security and the global development.

In addition, since this is the first official visit to China by a Japanese PM in a seven-year “Cold Peace” period, it is widely assumed that Abe’s visit symbolizes the resumption of high-level visits and will be followed by an increasing rapprochement between China and Japan. True, the leaders of the two economic giants witnessed a wide range of agreements, including a 30 billion US dollar worth of currency swap pact, the establishment of a maritime and air liaison mechanism, and enhancing people-to-people exchanges.

Yet, three factors have to be considered seriously in looking into Japanese foreign policy given the current changing geopolitical landscape regionally and globally. First, Japan has still regarded itself as a “defeated” state during the WWII. Since then, Japan’s postwar posture has frequently described as a new pacifism; yet in fact it is considerably more complex. As Henry Kissinger put it: “Japan had acquiesced in the U.S. predominance and followed the strategic landscape and the imperatives of Japan’s survival and long-term success.” This means that the governing elites in Tokyo used to hold the constitution drafted by U.S. occupying authorities with its stringent prohibition on military action, and adapted to their long-term strategic purposes. As a result, Japan was transformed from the pacific aspects of the postwar order (that prohibited military action) into a nation that has focused on other key elements of national strategy, particularly using economic leverage regionally and globally, though not uncontroversial.

Second, in a recently-released paper written by the former US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, he maintained that “Japan is a close ally of the U.S. and a rising military power, too, because of legal and constitutional changes of great significance championed by Prime Minister Abe.” In practice, the Japanese administration has engineered an expansion to enable its military to operate regionally and even globally in response to the rise of China, violent extremist activity in Asia, and the alleged North Korean belligerence.

Actually in 2013, Japanese Government White Paper revealed a desire to become a “normal country” with an active alliance policy. In a searching for a new role in the Asia-pacific region, Japan aims to act as an “anchor” of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) concluded in 2018 after the withdrawal of the United States. Now it involves 11 countries and representing 13.4% of global GDP ($ 13.5tri.). As the largest economy of the CPTPP, Japan has been active in moving it forward. Early this year when the British government stated it is exploring becoming a member of the CPTPP to stimulate exports after Brexit in 2019, Abe stated that the United Kingdom would be welcomed to join the partnership. It is said that even the U.S. reconsiders possibly rejoining the CPTPP if it were a “substantially new deal” for the United States.

Japan’s ardent involvement into the US-led strategy in Asia has also been endorsed to expand steadily as a normal power regionally and globally. For example, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) is the result of the joint declaration issued by the India and Japan in 2016. Although it is premised on four pillars of development and cooperation, it is self-evident that the AAGC reflects a growing special “strategic and global partnership between India and Japan” in which both sides have viewed China’s growing, pragmatic and successful presence in Africa as a menace. There is no question that AAGC is a well-crafted vision and agenda of both India and Japan, linking with their own development priorities. But with increasing pressure from Washington and Brussels, Japan and India are in effect driven by the option for the AAGC to rebalance China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

From the inception of the BRI, they have more than ever before been concerned with being isolated in Africa by Beijing’s initiative. But, as Ampwera Meshach, a researcher at Jilin University put it, “Africa is on the growth trend and offers potential markets and raw materials. For this reason, Africa largely needs pragmatic and scientific, technological and development- oriented initiatives and these are clearly reflected in China’s BRI.” In light of this, the AAGC does neither reflect a novel nor pragmatic approach on how it fits within the African agenda. Instead, AAGC’s foundational pillars seem more inclined to the Western cooperation approaches that have for decades not been translated into development.

Controversially, two days before Abe’s visit to Beijing, Japan had decided to scrap official development assistance (ODA) to China, which is a program where Japan provides aids to developing countries starting back in 1954. Even though some people argue that Japan’s ODA is reasonably cancelled because China’s GDP is even 2.5 times larger than that of Japan, yet, it is necessary for Chinese to be aware of the reality that Japan is a longstanding ally of the United States. As Japan has long been an economic power, its impressive military capabilities would not be confined to a strict policy of territorial defense—no projection of Japanese power or the U.S.-Japan alliance to the region as a whole.

It is during the Abe’s administration which has recognized an environment of growing Chinese assertiveness, violent extremist activity in Asia, and North Korean hostility, and therefore, Japan has eagerly participated in Asian security, including training and exercising with other nations, beyond a purely passive, home-island defense role. This makes it an increasingly important player serving the US strategy in Asia but challenging the rise of China globally.

It is true that Abe tweeted about the trip — while recognizing the challenges in moving bilateral relations forward, he said that he would still work to “push Sino-Japan relations to the next level”. Given the two countries’ economic links, it is only understandable that there is a need for the two sides to come closer. Moreover, Japanese businesses has been an extremely active force behind the government’s shift of attitude on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Yet, all in all, we should never ignore that Japan’s ambitious foreign policy has gone beyond the economic goal.

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