by John J. Metzler
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
UNITED NATIONS – The political optics could not have been more contrasting as China selected its leader and Japan elected its Prime Minister. In a grandiose and stunning setting, draped in the trappings of crimson and gold, 2,300 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) grandees predictably anointed Xi Jinping as the paramount leader of the People’s Republic. Across the Sea of Japan and lashed by heavy rains, 55 million Japanese voters re-elected Japan’s long ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The study in contrast between these two East Asian giants could not be more obvious. The People’s Republic of China staged its 19th Party Congress with the usual minority in charge.
President Xi Jinping has been elevated to the political heights and raw power not seen since the sanguinary days of tyrant Chairman Mao-Tse-tung more than a generation ago.
Though Chairman Xi commands a fundamentally changed and economically vibrant China than few could have ever imagined, politically, the levers or power and control have not seen the reform of the socio/economic sector. Stifling media censorship and political control remain the hallmark of the CCP system.
The Party/State rules, not the government in the traditional sense. People are often surprised to learn that in a country of 1.4 billion people, a mere 90 million or six percent are members of the ruling CCP, the sole political party.
Xi (64) first assumed power in 2012. Abe (63) entered office in 2012. But both men experienced a very different political trajectory.
Chairman Xi came into power amid the collective leadership that characterized the post-Mao era since the 1970’s. Chairman Xi has been granted the mantle of absolute power, a moniker not seen since Mao. Today Xi leads the world’s largest and powerful authoritarian state. As a special touch, an amendment to the CCP Constitution enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”.
A laudatory article in the state run China Daily extolled, “According to the new plan, the CCP will basically realize socialist modernization in the first stage from 2020 to 2035, before developing China into a ‘great modern socialist country’ that is ‘prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful.”
According to Prof. Willy Lam, a Hong Kong based Sinologist, “Their number one priority is to preserve the dominance of the CCP…expect draconian new decisions to control the society.”
Shinzo Abe, though scion of a prominent political family, nonetheless had to navigate the swirling political waters and complex factions of the Liberal Democratic Party, the party of the status quo and Japan Inc. Despite its many faults, at the end of the day, LDP delivers and that is one secret of their near unrivaled success since 1955.
When Prime Minister Abe went to the polls in a snap parliamentary election he was bolstered by overdue economic growth at 2.5 percent this quarter, but especially by the political blowback to North Korea’s rash and provocative missile tests over Japanese airspace. Nervousness over North Korea and the geopolitical implications for nearby Japan, delivered a landslide electoral win for Abe’s LDP.
As the Japan Times opined, the results of the parliamentary election “was a vote of confidence in the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, by default. The opposition was more fragmented than ever.”
Significantly the North Korean crisis has highlighted both the longstanding U.S./Japan military alliance and has singularly focused Abe on the threat from Pyongyang. Controversially, it allows Abe more political flexibility in amending Japan’s “peace constitution,” an enduring legacy of the U.S. postwar occupation, which forbids a robust and full-fledged military force.
During his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Abe poignantly underscored the threat from nuclear North Korea.
So what does this mean for the U.S.?
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post advised that Abe’s powerful mandate allows him to “play a more proactive role in resolving the crisis… Abe will drift closer to Washington and act more in tandem with Donald Trump.”
Pyongyang’s brinksmanship emerges as a litmus test for both Beijing and Tokyo. For China controlling its erstwhile communist comrades is ultimately to the benefit of Beijing who fears the spillover effects from regional strife and chaos. For Japan it’s about security, especially from nuclear attack.
As U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to visit East Asia, both China and regional allies in Japan and South Korea must seriously tackle the North Korean threat before it becomes a global catastrophe. America must refocus too.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China.