The rise of Shinzo Abe to the premiership of Japan is portent of the growing tension between it and China.

The election of Shinzo Abe as leader of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP) is a portent of growing tensions between Japan and China. The retiring prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who Abe will succeed next Tuesday, has presided over a steady deterioration of relations with China. Abe, however, is a different kettle of fish altogether. Koizumi was not rooted in Japan’s rightwing nationalist tradition: he was a pragmatist and a populist. Abe, in contrast, is a rightwing nationalist. Unlike Koizumi, for example, he has questioned the validity of the postwar Tokyo trials of Japan’s wartime leaders, which found many of them guilty of war crimes.

But it is Japan’s relations with east Asia, and China in particular, which should detain us here. After the Meiji restoration in 1868, Japan adopted an expansionist and colonial attitude towards its neighbours. It sought to identify itself with the west and looked down upon the Asian continent as backward and inferior. For most of the next 70 years, Japan was at war, mainly with its neighbours. It frequently behaved with barbarity, notably towards the Chinese and the Koreans. After its defeat in the second world war, Japan, unlike Germany, failed to show true contrition or give a fulsome apology, though it showered its neighbours, including China, with generous economic assistance. Only in 1995 did it finally offer an apology, but this was of the most limited and formulaic kind. As a result, Japan remains relatively isolated within the region: as far as its neighbours are concerned, the wounds remain real and raw.
One might think that the transformation of east Asia over the last three decades or so might have been cause for Japan to review its long-held attitude of contempt towards its neighbours. They could no longer be dismissed as backward: indeed, their economic transformation, especially that of China, posed a new kind of challenge – even threat – to Japan. But it would appear that this is not how Japan has responded. On the contrary, over the last decade, Japan has been slowly becoming more nationalist in its sentiments. And the election of Abe as LDP leader and the new prime minister will be by far the most important stage in this process so far. Far from seeking a new kind of relationship with China, it would seem that Japan is being driven by old enmities and new fears. Not surprisingly, there is growing concern in Japan about how China will behave given its new-found power and in the light of how Japan has treated it in the past. A combination of old-style superiority and new-born fear lie behind the revival of a new Japanese nationalism of which Abe is the expression.

The consequences are likely to look something like this. Japan will deepen its military alliance with the United States out of its fear of China, a process that the US will be happy to encourage, as indeed it already has. With similar American encouragement, Japan will continue to play a wider geographical role as its global ally. Meanwhile, Japan will reject the possibility of seeking a different kind of relationship with China and its other neighbours, while at the same time reasserting its own past and seeking to slowly rehabilitate its role and actions during the last war. The result will be growing tensions with its neighbours, above all China. That is bad news for east Asia and indeed the world.