It may seem a strange concept but the decision by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara to resign from his post and form a new political party to challenge the ruling DPJ and LDP elite may be the best news for Sino-Japanese relations in several years.
Strained as the relationship is by ongoing territorial disputes and the ever-looming memory of the Japanese occupation of China during WWII, the prospect of Ishihara, an arch-nationalist, becoming an important power-broker in the Diet may concern many. In the past Ishihara has written prominently about the need for Japan to adopt a more assertive foreign policy, unconstrained by Article 9 of the US-imposed constitution, which forbids Japan to maintain offensive military forces. In The Japan that Can Say No, Ishihara denounced the reliance of the Japanese on US military might in the region and castigated what he saw as the country’s weak politicians for kowtowing to US demands and appeasing the Chinese.
More recently, Ishihara has taken a vehemently anti-Chinese stance. Refusing to acknowledge China’s territorial claims in the East China Sea and persistently antagonising Chinese leaders with incendiary remarks about the war and Japanese superiority, he seems an unlikely candidate to bring greater stability in relations between the two countries.
However, with the Japanese government increasingly indecisive and fragmented, a strong, forceful character may be what is required to prevent China escalating tensions with some controlled aggression. For Ishihara’s nationalist tendencies are mirrored by almost every Chinese politician of note. Should his new party make a miraculous ascent to power, or more probably form a sizable minority as part of a coalition government, Ishihara’s demands for a “stronger” Japan on the international stage may yet become a reality. In the face of constant Chinese intimidation in the East China Sea, a government ready to renounce Article 9 of the constitution may restore the equilibrium. Furthermore, because of its close ties with the US and its technological prowess, Japan has the capabilities to attain nuclear weapons very swiftly.
These potential threats, whilst unlikely to materialise instantly, would serve as an important warning to China that any aggression – whether it be against Japanese coast guards in the East China Sea or businesses on the Chinese mainland – would meet with a potentially devastating response. Such a threat may help to restore the balance of power which, with the rise of China and Japan’s increasing timidity, may help stabilise the region.
Mr Ishihara could be an unlikely saviour.