On August 3, Japanese Prime Minister Abe reshuffled his cabinet. The shake-up came at a time when the prime minister was embroiled in scandals, his political protégé was under great pressure due to gaffes and missteps, and the ruling LDP was crushed in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election. Chinese media and scholars riveted by the shake-up have attempted to make assessments and speculation about its impact. Overall, while recognizing some positive signs, most Chinese commentators are pessimistic about the prospect of the Cabinet and a comprehensive Sino-Japan détente if Abe does not overhaul his domestic and foreign policy.
A Not-so-fresh Cabinet Signals the End of Abe Dominance
One view is that this reshuffle is a wholesale shake-up. A CRI online article tracked previous reshuffles: September 3, 2014, six out of 18 ministers were retained by Abe; October 7, 2015, 9 out of 19; and August 3, 2016, 8 out of 19; notably this time, only 5 were retained. The article hence described this Cabinet shake-up as the “largest political reshuffle since Abe took office.”
Stability is another major feature stressed by Chinese commentaries. As China Central Television put it, “for a regime with plunging approvals, another failed Cabinet revamp could be fatal to it; therefore, the key word for the new Cabinet is stability.”
According to Chinese observers, Abe tries to reach that goal in three ways. First, purging cabinet members that — using a Xinhua article’s words — “fail to handle troubles effectively and leave a negative impression on the public.” Xinhua referred to then-Minister of Education Matsuno Hirokazu, then-Minister of State for the Promotion of Overcoming Population Decline and Vitalizing Local Economy in Japan Yamamoto Kozo, and then-Minister of Justice Kaneda Katsutoshi. Second, opting for political veterans over fresh faces in appointing ministers. Safe hands noticed by Chinese observers include the new Defense Minister Onodera Itsunori, new Justice Minister Kamikawa Yoko, new Education Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa, and Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy Motegi Toshimitsu. Finally, retaining the core Cabinet members. The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Aso Taro and Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide as Abe’s “right-hand man” stay on.
Gao Hong, deputy director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, commented that “Abe purged some of his ‘dumb friends,’ and picked some moderate and balanced new cabinet members, which will to some extent mollify Japanese public’s discontent.”
Moreover, Chinese analysts noted Abe’s emphasis on the factional balance in this Cabinet reshuffle. Li Ruoyu, a researcher with the Institute of Japanese Studies at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote that “compared to previous Abe Cabinets, the new cabinet features less Abe’s personal preferences and more balancing among LDP’s factions. Diet members, such as Kono Taro and Noda Seiko, that have been keeping some distance from Abe, or even are potential challengers to Abe within the party, all assume ministerial posts in the Cabinet.”
Meanwhile, according to Meng Xiaoxu, an Associate Professor at the China University of International Relations, “for the 19 cabinet members, the number of ministers from the Kishida faction increased to 4, matching the largest faction in the LDP, the Hosoda faction. And Kishida Fumio himself was appointed the critical post of the Chairman of LDP Policy Research Council, a move to balance relations between factions. Appointing dissident Noda Seido also represents Abe’s compromise. Moreover, avoiding filling key posts with Abe’s confidants could also quell intra-party dissatisfaction, reduce internal threats, and stabilize the political situation.”
Since his return to premiership in December 2012, Abe has maintained seemingly invincible political dominance. On the grounds that this Cabinet reshuffle is so cautiously managed and “not-so-Abe”, Chinese analysts assert that such dominance has come to an end, or at least has been crippled. Lian Degui, Professor at the Shanghai International Studies University, observed that “Abe’s status has been shaken. Voters’ discontent is mainly targeted at Abe. Even a Cabinet reshuffle could not reverse the trend of Abe’s shrinking influence.”
Will the Reshuffle be Abe’s Lifesaver?
Barring major policies adjustments, most Chinese analysts are considerably pessimistic about the long-term effects of the cabinet revamp in terms of rescuing the Prime Minister’s political outlook. From their perspective, the current predicament stems from himself: his arrogant ruling style, and more importantly, his rightist policies.
Wang Shaopu, director of the Japan Study Center with the Shanghai Jiaotong University, wrote that “the reshuffle might have short-term effects but cannot ensure stability in the long run. The troubles of the Abe Cabinet were caused by Cabinet members such as Inada Tomomi, but were rooted in Abe… The root is Abe’s insistence on the national policies that are against the trend of the world. Currently there is few sign that Abe will fundamentally adjust those national policies. In this case, it is hard to imagine that Abe cabinet will get out of the mess because of the changes of several cabinet members.” Consequently, he predicted that “in the foreseeable future, Japan will operate under a government with low supporting rates and political infighting will hence intensify.”
Chinese observers used more space to speculate the effects of this reshuffle on the Sino-Japan relations.
The appointment of Kono Taro, the son of the famous China-friendly politician Kono Yohei, as the foreign minister, the increasing influence of dovish Kishida faction within the Cabinet and the LDP leadership, and the retention of other China hands (namely, Vice-President of the LDP Komura Masahiko and LDP Secretary General Nikai Toshihiro) all caught Chinese analysts’ eyes. Some observers gave Abe credit for those arrangements and therefore expressed some optimism about the prospect of improving Sino-Japanese ties.
Gao Hong, for example, commented that “Overall, this Cabinet reshuffle and LDP’s personnel changes do not overtly provoke China. Nikai Toshihiro stays as the General Secretary and Kono Taro is appointed as the New Foreign Minister. Both leave some space for the stabilization and improvement of bilateral relations.”
Lu Zhongwei, the former president of China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), also commented on the combination of a hawkish Itsunori Onodera and a dovish Kono “might suggest that Japan’s China diplomacy will make slight adjustments.”
Zhang Jingwei, Senior Researcher at the Charhar Institute, believed that “the appointment of a China hand Kono Taro as the Foreign Minister will have some positive effects on cracking the history disputes among China, Japan, and South Korea.”
Lian Degui was even more optimistic, claiming that the strong presence of doves in the leadership will push the new Cabinet’s Asia policy “moving toward moderation” and “is bound to be of some help for improving Sino-Japan ties.”
However, Chinese analysts also cautioned against expectations of an overhaul in Abe’s China policy and a comprehensive Sino-Japan détente for three reasons.
First, the doves’ influence in the Cabinet will be constrained as Abe is the ultimate decision-maker. Li Ruoyu, for example, wrote that “whether Abe’s appointment of Kono Taro as the Foreign Minister signals an all-around transition in Japan’s foreign policy? Not necessarily. Even if we assume Kono Taro completely follows his father’s foreign policy, it is certain that an independent foreign policy under the Foreign Minister is impossible… Kono could only take limited initiatives under the premise of implementing Abe’s foreign policy approach.”
Lu Yaodong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences viewed Abe’s appointment of Kono more as a move to stabilize LDP factions and earn their support, and to make preparations for submitting the Diet a draft new Constitution.
A Global Times editorial mocked: “Abe is a born hawk; even if he stuck several doves’ feathers in his wings, his eyes, his mouth and his voice couldn’t hide his hawkish gene.”
Second, Abe shows no sign of fundamentally shifting his Asia policy. Arguing that “the nation’s rightward trend has not changed,” Lu Zhongwei thought that “Abe see that as the historical mission of the LDP and the political standard for picking officials to make sure the new Cabinet continue to push Japan moving forward along this path.” Meanwhile, he also believed that “[Abe’s] thinking of leaning on the U.S. and confronting China has not changed.” In a word, “this move seems new, yet old in essence, entailing not many adjustments to the ever-existing political mindset and governance style over the past five years,” he wrote.
Finally, the structural contradictions have decided the limits of Sino-Japan détente. Zhang Jingwei predicted that “even if Abe steps down, no matter who succeeds, Sino-Japan relations still face structural conundrums. The geopolitical situation in the Northeastern Asia shifts as the power pendulum sways. Deep down, the historical impasse and contemporary contradictions are not caused by Abe himself, but rather a reality of many interweaving factors.” Similarly, a CRI online article warned that “the structural contradictions will not disappear with Cabinet reshuffle or administration change.”
An Opportunity for Sino-Japan Ties?
The examination of Chinese views toward Abe’s latest Cabinet reshuffle indicates that in contrast to their harsh rhetoric in the past, Chinese sources are relatively restrained in their criticism against Abe. Judging from their commentaries, this is because of a strong dovish presence in the Cabinet and LDP leadership that could potentially check Abe’s rightward impulses. And many Chinese analysts interpret such presence itself as Abe’s signal to show his willingness to improve Sino-Japan ties.
Unfortunately, their analyses also reveal their ingrained mistrust of Abe. They seriously doubt he would make any fundamental shift in his China policy. Meanwhile, when compared to 2006, when Koizumi’s step-down ignited optimist feelings that Sino-Japan ties would quickly rebound, many Chinese observers now seem to believe that the structural contradictions are so deep that even if Abe cabinet could not last, a comprehensive Sino-Japan détente would still be unrealistic. On these grounds, they contend that the warming of ties would be tactical and limited.
Nonetheless, as long as steps toward détente are steady, a little bit sluggishness does not matter. One critical reason for the chilliness in these years’ Sino-Japan exchanges is that there are fractures in the foundation of the relationship. If those fractures could be carefully healed, a Sino-Japan springtime will come, sooner or later.
Pengqiao Lu holds an M.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University. His research focuses on security and economic governance in East Asia and Cross-strait relations. He has worked at multiple think tanks in Washington, DC. You can follow him on Twitter: @plu91