China fears Japan will use hostage crisis to drop pacifist policies

When news broke Sunday that Islamic State militants had beheaded journalist Kenji Goto after killing another Japanese citizen, much of the world condemned the executions and offered Japan condolences.

Not China. In Beijing, concerns over Tokyo’s possible response to the beheadings – a buildup of Japan’s military – trumped diplomatic niceties.

On Tuesday, Global Times, an arm of the government-run People’s Daily, published a commentary headlined, “Will hostage crisis work in Abe’s favor?” In it, a university professor questioned whether Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might exploit the situation to beef up his country’s military and explore “a new model” for national security. It was the second time in as many days that the paper had taken that tack.

In an editorial Monday, Global Times had been quick to suggest that Abe would seize on the crisis to bulk up Japan’s military.

“That the Abe government is willing to confront the atrocious IS is not necessarily a matter of morality and obligation,” the editorial said. “It’s very likely out of the consideration to sending Japanese forces abroad.”

Japan’s grisly encounter with the Islamic State puts China in a precarious position. China fears the rise of jihadists on its borders, particularly in the western region of Xinjiang, where police have clashed with Muslim Uighurs for decades. On Monday, in response to a question about Goto’s killing, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said, “China is against all forms of terrorism and all extremist activities targeting innocent civilians.”

Yet China’s fears about Muslim extremists may be overshadowed by its worries about a remilitarized Japan. China was invaded and partly occupied by Japan during World War II. More recently, the two countries have sparred over disputed islands in the East China Sea and visits by Abe to a war shrine in Tokyo that honors fallen soldiers, including some World War II war criminals.

Japan’s close relationship with the United States is another source of friction. China’s leaders think President Barack Obama is bent on “containing” Beijing’s influence in Asia and has been pushing Japan to exert itself as part of that strategy.

A right-wing nationalist, Abe served as prime minister for a year in 2006-07 and then was returned to office late in 2012. As his position has strengthened, he’s pushed the idea of revising Japan’s Constitution so its military can participate in “collective self-defense.”

“I will give my all to advance the biggest reforms since the end of the war,” Abe said after winning a convincing victory in snap elections in December. “This is a challenge that we must take.”

Following World War II, the United States forced Japan to enact a constitution that obligates the country to “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation” and to refrain from maintaining military forces.

Japan does have well-trained “Self-Defense Forces,” but their expertise is mainly in defensive maneuvers, such as countering submarines and beach invasions. In 1992, Japanese legislators enacted a law that allows these forces to join in international peacekeeping missions, and Japan has done so, sometimes in the face of public opposition.

The beheading of Goto, which came a week after Islamic State militants killed Hurana Yukawa, has shocked and angered Japanese citizens like no other recent event.

By Tuesday morning, a message of tolerance that Goto wrote on Twitter in 2010 had gone viral on social media.

“Close your eyes and remain patient. It’s over once you get angry or yell,” Goto (@kenjigotoip) tweeted in Japanese on Sept. 7, 2010. “It is almost like praying. Hating is not the role of humans; judgment is God’s domain. It was my Arab brothers who taught me this.”

Japan’s Abe seems to have other ideas. Even before the videotape of Goto’s execution could be authenticated last weekend, Abe vowed to “make the terrorists pay the price.”

Whether the Japanese public will support him in an act of revenge is far from clear. A poll last spring showed that nearly two-thirds of Japanese surveyed opposed Abe’s proposal to revise the constitution and bolster the nation’s defenses.

“There is a strong isolationist sentiment remaining in this country,” Narushige Michishita, an Asian security specialist with the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, said in a recent interview. “We have had this for a long time, and it is convenient. We didn’t have to put our young men in harm’s way, and didn’t have to get involved with dirty international politics.”

Amid the outpouring of grief in Japan, some on the left are blaming Abe, charging he instigated the conflict with the Islamic State. In a trip to the Middle East last month, Abe pledged roughly $200 million in humanitarian aid and other assistance for countries battling the Islamic State.

Upon taking the two Japanese hostages, the Islamic State initially demanded the same sum in ransom and criticized Abe for getting involved in “an unwinnable war.”

While China and Japan rarely agree on anything, it appears that Beijing is finding common cause with Japanese who don’t want their country to become a global player.

In its editorial Monday, Global Times criticized Japan as too subservient to the United States, which, the paper suggested, led to the conflict with the Islamic State.

“The worst outcome on Sunday once again proves that the Abe government lacks the ability to cope with the perplexities of the Middle East,” Global Times said. “Japan’s Middle East diplomacy and even the whole of its foreign policies are closely tied to those of the U.S.”

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