Editorial Board

How Shinzo Abe Can Win Friends and Influence China

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants a mandate in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, and voters look set to give him one. The question is whether he understands what he’s getting.

Polls show that Japanese want Abe to fix the economy. Optimism and stock prices shot up earlier this year after the Bank of Japan began a massive quantitative-easing program and Abe’s government announced stimulus plans to rouse Japan from its 20-year funk. The prime minister now says he needs control over both chambers of the Diet in order to see through critical structural reforms -- the third “arrow’’ in his recovery plan. Voters appear to agree.

For Abe, though, Japan’s revival isn’t merely a matter of yen rates and export figures. He envisions a broader renaissance, in which the island nation reasserts itself as a natural leader of Asia. The prime minister’s advisers don’t hesitate to say that the boldness of Abenomics emerged out of a sense of existential threat -- a feeling that Japan had begun to settle into genteel decline and had put itself at the mercy of a bullying, arrogant China.

Abe has talked of revising the “pacifist” constitution in order to transform Japan’s Self-Defense Forces into a regular military, free to conduct combat missions abroad. He hasn’t ruled out the possibility that he might visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals. A wing of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is pushing to rewrite Japanese history to be less critical of Japan’s record in World War II.

All these measures are hugely controversial at home, let alone abroad, where they enrage Japan’s neighbors. China, Japan’s largest trading partner, is happy to wage this fight. President Xi Jinping faces a tough, painful stretch of economic restructuring at home that could throw millions of Chinese out of work. He needs to keep an assertive military on his side, and a restless populace distracted: Japan-bashing serves both purposes. Heightened tensions -- particularly around disputed islands administered by Japan but claimed by China -- may well escalate into a military conflict that would draw in the U.S. and derail Japan’s incipient recovery.

The Clintonian adage applies: Japan can’t challenge China for leadership of Asia without a strong, vibrant, innovative economy, stupid. Anything that doesn’t further that goal is, by Abe’s own logic, a distraction.

After these elections -- for the upper house of the Diet -- LDP leaders would be wise to focus their resources on overcoming opposition to the most difficult structural reforms. That doesn’t mean Japan can’t take measures it deems necessary to bolster its defenses, such as increasing its military budget, or even making cosmetic changes such as renaming its military the “National Defense Forces.’’ Such decisions should be based on strategic concerns, not a desire to fire up patriotic fervor. They should be communicated to Beijing quietly but transparently, well in advance.

Indeed, as the U.S. has argued in its own relationship with a rising China, peace may pose a challenge; predictability shouldn’t. To its credit, Tokyo continues to promote the idea of establishing a hotline between defense ministries and a maritime communications link to forestall clashes between rival ships maneuvering close to one another. After almost agreeing a couple of years ago, China has since resisted such measures. Beijing should understand that dragging its heels on such common-sense matters damages its relationship with Washington as well as Tokyo.

When it comes to South Korea, the U.S. may have more of a role to play. For Abe to visit Yasukuni, or to try and whitewash the enslavement of Korean “comfort women’’ and forced laborers during World War II, would undermine relations between two critical U.S. allies. Although Washington has delivered this message repeatedly, Japanese officials still seem to view the warnings as pro forma. Tokyo should be under no such illusions.

The scholar Daniel Sneider draws a parallel to Germany, where U.S. officials played a central role in talks to establish an official fund, supported by German business, to compensate forced laborers under the Nazis. Japan has fiercely resisted creating such a fund and would probably not welcome U.S. intervention. Of course, neither did Germany. Unless Japan finds some means like this to bring closure to the issue, it will continue to fester and unsettle the country’s most critical relationship -- its U.S. alliance.

Admittedly, painting China as an enemy has served Abe’s reform efforts thus far. If Japan is to move forward, though, it’s time to recognize and respect its friends, too.