Japan’s main opposition party will aim to regain power behind a new leader whose stance on a territorial dispute could exacerbate tensions with China.
Four of five lawmakers running in the Sept. 26 election to head the Liberal Democratic Party have vowed to build on islands also claimed by China. While Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda this week nationalized the islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diayou in Chinese, to assert sovereignty, he has no construction plans and has called for calm from both countries.
The dispute is hurting trade between Asia’s two biggest economies at a time when each is struggling to cope with a global economic slowdown that is crimping exports. Polls show the LDP may win parliamentary elections Noda has pledged to call soon, increasing the chances that its standard-bearer will be the next prime minister, possibly in a coalition with a new group led by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto.
“The LDP candidates are kind of locking themselves into a position of building some kind of port facilities on the Senkakus,” said Gerald Curtis, a professor of Japanese politics at Columbia University in New York. Doing so “would be a direct challenge to the Chinese and they would respond,” he said.
The row escalated today when six Chinese government vessels entered what Japan sees as its territorial waters close to the islands. Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura described the development as “extremely regrettable,” and said he “strongly urged” that the ships leave immediately.
LDP Secretary-General Nobuteru Ishihara, former prime minister Shinzo Abe, ex-defense chief Shigeru Ishiba and former foreign minister Nobutaka Machimura, who all favor construction, will vie with former defense minister Yoshimasa Hayashi to replace Sadakazu Tanigaki as head of the party in an election campaign that starts today. Noda’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan also has a leadership election this month that the prime minister is expected to win.
Ishihara is the favorite to lead the LDP, given his current position as the party’s No. 2 official and support by faction leaders, said analysts including Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University in Tokyo.
“There are a lot of conservatives among the candidates,” Iwai said. “The LDP has taken a clear conservative stance since last year, in order to distinguish itself from the DPJ.”
A Sept. 2 Kyodo News poll showed 25.5 percent of the public favor Ishiba, followed by Ishihara at 19.6 percent and Abe at 17.8 percent. The survey provided no margin of error. The LDP race is restricted to party members.
Ishihara is the son of Tokyo Governor and China critic Shintaro Ishihara, whose April announcement that he was seeking municipal funds to buy the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea set off the latest chapter of the territorial dispute. Sovereignty over the area gives the holder rights to fishing grounds as well as oil and natural gas reserves.
Japan on Sept. 11 reached a deal to purchase the islands from a private Japanese owner for 2.05 billion yen ($26.4 million), prompting outrage from China. Two Chinese patrol boats were sent into the area and Premier Wen Jiabao said China would make no concessions on the issue.
The controversy has prompted anti-Japanese protests in Hong Kong and Beijing, hurting Japanese companies such as Nissan Motor Co. doing business in China. The purchase will unavoidably affect Sino-Japanese trade relations and have a negative impact, Vice Minister of Commerce Jiang Zengwei said at a press conference in Beijing yesterday.
Noda’s government has presented the deal as a means of preserving the status quo, under which landings are not permitted except by government officials. The LDP candidates have rejected that premise, saying local fishermen are unable to take full advantage of rich fishing grounds because they have nowhere to shelter in case of rough weather.
“We need to raise our level of control over the islands by building a harbor,” Ishiba said in a Sept. 7 interview. “If necessary, we should station personnel there.” Machimura said in a Sept. 10 interview that “it would be good” to build a port facility there to aid fishermen.
Abe said on Sept. 12 that Japan’s territorial disputes, including separate rows with South Korea and Russia, were one of the main reasons he decided to run for the top party post five years after stepping down as premier, blaming ill health.
“Our beautiful ocean and land are now under threat of invasion,” he told reporters.
“If an Ishiba or an Ishihara or an Abe becomes prime minister, then whatever understanding Noda might have gotten from the Chinese about this will be moot,” Columbia’s Curtis said.
While 60 percent of voters support neither main party, the LDP’s half century of control until it was ousted by the DPJ in 2009 puts it in a better position to win the most seats in the lower house of parliament than Hashimoto’s newly formed Japan Restoration Party, said analysts including Jeff Kingston, head of Asian studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.
Hashimoto’s party has 23.8 percent support, according to a Sankei FNN poll published on Sept. 4. The LDP had 21.7 percent support and the DPJ had 17.4 percent in the survey, which gave no margin of error.
“The LDP has the history and a lot of money,” Kingston said.