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Rift between PM Abe, CCS Suga on SDF deployment in S. China Sea, Osaka elections

(Sentaku: December 2015, pp. 48-50)

 

 At the Japan-U.S. Summit in Manila on the evening of Nov. 19, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told President Barack Obama he will “consider Self-Defense Forces (SDF) operations in the South China Sea while closely watching the impact of the situation on Japan’s security.”

 

 The common understanding in the Japanese government is that deployment in the South China Sea is difficult because the SDF’s hands are currently full in dealing with Chinese ships in the East China Sea.

 

 It is thought that Abe made the statement to Obama because while he had wanted to appeal to international public opinion on China’s illegal attempts to change the status quo in the South China Sea by force at the recent summit meetings, the leaders were preoccupied with counterterrorism because of the terrorist attacks in Paris. His meeting with Obama became his only opportunity to highlight the South China Sea issue.

 

 In any case, there is no evidence that the Foreign Ministry was involved in suggesting SDF deployment to Abe. The Prime Minister himself probably came up with this idea to call Obama’s attention to Asia.

 

 The stir created by Abe’s statement at home was more serious. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga immediately negated Abe’s statement on the next day. Even Abe had to modify his own remarks in Kuala Lumpur subsequently, denying any plans for the SDF to join the U.S.’s Operation Freedom of Navigation. This resulted in an extremely unusual situation of the prime minister revising his statement to match the chief cabinet secretary’s statement and not the other way around.

 

 This incident is reckoned to be a reflection of the “awkward atmosphere” between Abe and Suga.

 

 The gap between the two is said to have started widening after Abe was reelected as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president without a vote last September.

 

 In the Osaka gubernatorial and mayoral elections on Nov. 22, Suga was quite happy to see the candidates of Osaka Ishin no Kai win both elections, while Abe had ordered every party executive to campaign for the LDP-supported candidates to win at least one of the two elections.

 

 It is said that Suga had also been irked by Abe’s appointment of his “buddies” in the reshuffle of the cabinet and the LDP leadership after his reelection as LDP chief.

 

 Meanwhile, LDP Secretary General Sadakazu Tanigaki, who is known to be a gentle and honest politician, has been observed to be behaving differently recently. For instance, he has been meeting and dining regularly with Deputy Prime Minister cum Finance Minister Taro Aso, who was once his arch enemy, while stubbornly refusing to heed the request of Toshihiro Nikai, General Council chief and chairman of the Nikai faction, to accept two Diet members into the party.

 

 On the other hand, he had no qualms about allowing Takeo Hiranuma and Hiroyuki Sonoda, who once bolted the LDP, to return to the party per Abe’s endorsement and was instrumental in accepting former Democratic Party of Japan Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto, also a LDP defector, back into the party.

 

 Tanigaki is also taking the lead in the deadlocked talks with coalition partner Komeito on reduced consumption tax rate for certain items. He even held secret talks with top leaders of Soka Gakkai, Komeito’s main support group, in his effort to work for a deal.

 

 In other words, Tanigaki is being uncharacteristically active politically. It is reckoned that in a situation where there is no clear frontrunner in the race to become the next prime minister, his ambition to succeed Abe may explain his moving closer to Abe and Aso.

 

 On the other hand, anti-Abe/Tanigaki forces led by Nikai and former Secretary General Makoto Koga are also beginning to stir. Suga stands on the borderline between these two forces. (Summary)

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