The China Factor in Elections in Japan and Germany

Having won the leadership race for the ruling LDP, former foreign minister Fumio Kishida is set to become Japan’s next prime minister within a couple of days; and then face a general election by November-end. In Germany, voters have cast their ballot but the verdict is undecided. With the SDP and CDU winning 25.7% and 24.1% of votes respectively, the election is being called “most uncertain” in German history. Most analysts in China are telling us, unpredictable governments led by weak leaders in both Japan and Germany do not augur well for China, whose economy has entered a soft patch.

As was being expected, markets in Tokyo surged a month ago on the day the outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced his dropping out of the race in the election for a new leader of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Despite his being in the key post in the Abe cabinet for seven years, diplomatically novice Suga also proved himself “incompetent” in fighting the coronavirus pandemic in the country. The scale of his disastrous “ill-governance” is not difficult to fathom as he defied the broad public consensus and “caved in” before the International Olympics Association and went ahead with Japan hosting the Summer Olympics, which concluded only a few weeks ago. That explains why his stepping aside in the LDP leadership race boosted confidence in the stock markets. Remember, by virtue of its dominant position in the Diet – Japan’s parliament – the leader of the LDP is virtually assured of becoming the prime minister.

In Germany, the announcement by The Green party months ago to field a chancellor candidate injected unprecedented “excitement” in what is otherwise traditionally known as “boring” and “un-exciting” election. The general elections in Germany concluded just over a week ago. Besides, The Greens’ entry into the fray also generated a public perception that “increased fiscal spending could be on the way.”  Interestingly, like in Japan, the general election outcome has surprised many in Germany, even shocked many more. Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, failed to touch the 30% figure, the lowest ever. This is in spite of Angela Markel, who ruled Germany for 16 years, pitching in for the ruling center-right party’s candidate Armin Laschet.  The opposition parties are sarcastically calling the CDU worst performance “Merkel inheritance.” On the other hand, the Finance Minister Olaf Scholz led center-left Socialist Democratic Party – a junior partner in the current ruling coalition government – edged past the CDU by a flicker. This led a Chinese commentator to describe the German election outcome as saying: “The rightists did not win and the leftists did not lose.”

Both in Japan and Germany, as the new government is being put together, a common factor is the ruling dispensation losing or having lost the voter’s confidence. Though the final electorate verdict in Japan will be known in two months’ time. Interestingly, China is the other important common factor in elections in the two economic giants in Asia Pacific and in Europe, respectively. Within the LDP, the conservative establishment of the party was not only preferred but actively “engineered” the victory of the “status quo” candidate – Fumio Kishida. 

In sharp contrast, in Germany’s conservative ruling CDU party, the status quo candidate Armin Laschet – the preferred choice as successor to Angela Merkel, backed and announced by Merkel herself – has lost miserably. However, with the unexpected outcome of the September 26 elections, most analysts in the country believe the voter’s unclear mandate is going to have significant implications for Germany’s approach towards Beijing. On the other hand, what is causing concerns in Beijing is Chancellor Merkel’s pro-engagement policy towards China has shaped Europe’s pro-Beijing stance for more than a decade and half, and now her stepping aside might lead to a shift in both Germany’s as well as Europe’s China policy. 

Therefore, under rapidly transforming geopolitics in Asia Pacific and in Europe, and with reports of China’s economy slowing down, any unfavourable (to Beijing) shift in the policies of China’s two largest trading partners respectively in Asia and in Europe can have both short-term and long-term impact on China’s foreign policy.  

Though it is difficult to say when exactly China started becoming a factor in the electoral politics in Japan. But following China’s rapid economic growth since the PRC entered the WTO in 2001, the mainstream political parties in Japan, especially the conservative pro-business LDP, have all been focussing on security concerns originating from increasingly becoming “aggressive” China. Over the past two decades, two issues which have kept alive the “China factor” in Japanese elections are namely the so-called Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo and the Senkaku Islands dispute. In short, the shrine was founded by Emperor Meiji in 1869 and is dedicated to 2.5 million Japanese who died in wars beginning in the 19th century and including WWII. In recent decades, visits to the controversial Shrine of war dead – viewed in Beijing (and in Seoul) as a symbol of Japan’s militarism – by all political leaders before the election has become a part of the established “election ritual.” 

Additionally, in order to win over the mainstream media, general electorate and political support, most national leaders across the political spectrum aim to build up their respective image as that of a leader who can challenge and stand up to China. For example, in the just concluded leadership race of the LDP, all four contestants appeared on a common platform to face the media on the issue of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. Interestingly, while the two women candidates, Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda – both former internal affairs ministers, were both emphatically assertive on visiting the controversial shrine. The ultra-conservative Takaichi, who is a staunch supporter of nationalism and military and who regularly visits the Shrine, said: “If I am elected as the LDP leader and become Prime Minister, I will never stop visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.”

Of the two male, and main, contenders in the “four horse” for the top LDP position, Fumio Kishida and the incumbent former foreign minister Taro Kono (who is known in Japan as “star parliamentarian”) both were rather careful when asked about their views on visiting the Shrine for the war dead. Remember, both in China and in South Korea the shrine is called “the shrine of war criminals.” While Kishida was extremely careful to not “offend” the party establishment maintained “there was nothing wrong in paying a visit to the shrine,” Kono on the other hand – of late, Kono had been cultivating his image of the future Japanese prime minister who is capable of pursuing a “win-win” foreign and economic policy with China – tried to stick to middle ground on the issue and said: “If I become the prime minister, I might continue to visit Yasukuni Shrine in my individual capacity.”

Furthermore, in post-Merkel Germany, as mentioned in the early part of this article, China’s concerns are more pronounced. Unlike Japan where in spite of the rising nationalism and overall polity becoming hardened towards China, Beijing is assured of the broad consensus within LDP in favor of continuing with the status quo in trade with China. The change of guard in Germany has already raised questions about whether a new government in Berlin could usher in a new approach towards Beijing. This might be especially so given the change in the views of major political parties, in the mainstream media and in a section of German industry.

Finally, if early reactions in op-ed columns in the Chinese media are any indication, the future new leaders in Fumio Kishida in Japan and Olaf Scholz in Germany are both “trouble” for China. On Kishida, an opinion column in an influential Chinese newspaper commented: “With Kishida as the new LDP leader, Japan should gear up for a new government by this time around next year.” A Chinese commentary on the post-election fluid political situation in Germany said: “Following Merkel’s departure and with a weak new leader in Germany, the strongest economy in Europe, will on the one hand pave the way for France to have a greater say in the EU policy towards China. At the same time, no matter who emerges as the new German leader – Armin Laschet or Olaf Scholz – neither of the two will be in a position to rise up to the stature of Merkel any time soon.” 

To sum up, if in Japan a China challenge awaits the next cabinet, then it is China’s turn to be nervous about what’s in store for Beijing in post-Merkel Germany.

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.