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Shinzo Abe’s Dangerous Mixed Signals

Japan’s hawkish new PM Shinzo Abe is either confused or purposely contradicting himself. Contrary to his anti-China nationalist rhetoric on the campaign trail, Abe dispatched an envoy to Beijing today in what the FT says was “clearly presented as an effort to ease tensions.”

And yet, perplexingly, Natsuo Yamaguchi, the envoy, offered a decidedly un-conciliatory message to the Chinese before he boarded the plane to Beijing: “One wise idea might be to leave it to future generations to solve the [Senkaku] issue.” In effect: Quiet down, China, and leave our islands alone.

In a separate incident last month Abe scrapped plans to commemorate “Takeshima Day,” a move that would have inflamed tensions with South Korea over a different set of disputed islands. During the campaign trail Abe explicitly stressed the importance of defending Japan’s island and ocean territories, several of which are claimed by Seoul, and he even suggested he might back away from Tokyo’s past apologies for forcing Korean women into prostitution during World War II.

Abe has been curiously timid thus far in his current term as PM. This was especially evident in his handling of the Algerian hostage crisis, where he pleaded to the Algerian authorities for restraint and caution. “This is quite dangerous,” writes AI editor Adam Garfinkle. “The Chinese leadership understands exactly what their counterparts in Algeria are all about, and they are bound now to see Abe as an amateur bluffer.”

Abe might be thinking that conciliatory displays will cool the waters, but these mixed signals might be more dangerous. A combination of muscular rhetoric and weak policy may tempt the Chinese to push so far in island disputes that Tokyo must respond.

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