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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party scored a decisive election victory on Oct. 22.   © Reuters

Asia takes stock of Japan's pacifism after Abe win

Revising the constitution could fuel tensions in the region

MITSURU OBE, Nikkei staff writer | China

TOKYO -- The landslide election victory by the Liberal Democratic Party on Sunday hands Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the seats needed to start the parliamentary procedures toward revising the country's pacifist constitution, a prospect that brings mixed feelings to the rest of Asia.

The election results virtually guarantees that Abe will get a third three-year term as leader of the party next year when a leadership contest is expected to be held. LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito won two-thirds of the seats in Japan's lower house. 

Abe's retention of power is welcomed by some, such as Indonesia and India, but media reports in other countries, such as South Korea and China, suggest that the election win is viewed with caution over worries that Japan would reassert itself militarily. 

"With this victory, Abe earned a strong mandate to be tough on North Korea and to build the Japanese economy," said a piece in Kompas, the leading Indonesian daily newspaper. Abe came into power in late 2012 with a message of "Japan is back," promising to revitalize the nation's long-dormant economy and boost its international profile through "pro-active diplomacy."

"Heartiest greetings to my dear friend @AbeShinzo on his big election win. Look forward to further strengthen India-Japan relations with him," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.

India and Japan have developed closer defense ties over the last few years, as worries mounted about the future direction of an increasingly assertive and belligerent China. Beijing has built islands in the disputed South China Sea that will house missile launchers, despite outcry in the region. President Xi Jinping's government has also wielded its economic might throughout the region with its Belt and Road Initiative and its backing of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Earlier this year, Abe signaled his intention to revise the country's pacifist constitution, referring in particular to a clause inserted at the behest of the U.S. after World War II. Abe said he wanted to establish the constitutional standing of the Self-Defense Forces, so that there was no room for debate on whether or not on the force was legal under the framework. 

"Abe to push reform of Japan's pacifist constitution after election win," Singapore's Channel News Asia said on its website front page. The electoral victory is "bolstering his chance of becoming the nation's longest-serving premier and re-energizing his push to revise the pacifist constitution," the cable television news said.

But elsewhere, the reaction to the election win was more muted. 

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said Beijing has "taken note of" the Japanese election results, but stopped short of making any specific comment. Speaking Monday afternoon at a daily press briefing, Geng reiterated the official line that Beijing values the importance of bilateral relations, but raised the question of "whether Japan would continue on its path to peaceful development."

In South Korea, the reaction was also frosty. Hong Ik-pyo, a lawmaker of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, said that he did not agree with Japan's plan to change its constitution, which he said would draw Northeast Asia into conflict. "I ask the Abe government to cooperate with its South Korean counterpart in resolving North Korean nuclear issues peacefully with diplomatic measures," said Hong at a party meeting on Monday.

His sentiment is echoed in South Korean press. "Abe wins overwhelmingly, thanks to North Korean threats," said a headline on South Korean broadcaster KBS's website. "Constitutional revision that could transform it into a war-ready country gains momentum," the article said.

Dong-A Ilbo, a conservative daily newspaper of South Korea, also wrote in a similar tone, saying Abe's victory will enable the country to participate in a war. The daily linked Abe's victory to Chinese President Xi's consolidation of power at the recently ended Communist Party congress, saying that the stakes could now be raised between the two powerful countries.

The Hankyoreh, a progressive newspaper, was worried that a revision of the Japanese constitution will deepen tensions on the Korean Peninsula, especially if the change recognizes the role of the Self-Defense Forces.

Chinese media raised similar worries. "Nightmare of constitutional reform" will emerge, which would potentially pose "the largest threat to the post-war peaceful system," said Wu Jinan, senior adviser to the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, in an analytical piece carried in the Shanghai-based Liberation Daily, a local Communist Party mouthpiece.

The story also quoted Wang Shaopu, director of the Japan Study Center with the Shanghai Jiaotong University. Wang said it might not be straightforward to make constitutional revisions, given the opinions of other parties have to be heard. He said the region was not ready for constitutional reform in Japan.

Kenji Kawase in Beijing, Kim Jaewon in Seoul, Kiran Sharma in New Delhi and Wataru Suzuki in Jakarta contributed to this article

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