U.S. Nervous About Japan's New Prime Minister

The Obama administration will soon be dealing with new leadership in Japan. Over the weekend, Japanese voters returned a former prime minister to the country's top job. Shinzo Abe took an assertive stand on several issues during the election, sparking concern in the U.S. his win could stir up tension in the region.

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And there is new leadership in another Asian nation. Over the weekend, Japanese voters returned a former prime minister to the country's top job. Shinzo Abe took an assertive stand on several big issues during the election. And as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, this sparked concern in the United States that his win could stir up tensions in the region.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: There was a strong current of nationalism running through Shinzo Abe's campaign. He took a hawkish position on territorial issues and a less-apologetic approach to Japan's recent history. That may have helped the 58-year-old Abe capture the prime minister's seat, but it also created a nervousness among some allies, including the U.S., says Sheila Smith, a Japan specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations.

SHEILA SMITH: I think there's a certain amount of ambiguity about how he wants to proceed, especially on security and foreign policy issues.

NORTHAM: Smith says there are several causes for concern in Washington, among them, how Abe will handle bitter territorial claims with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Although Japan has administered the islands for decades, China claimed sovereignty, and has been sending patrol boats into the area. Under a U.S.-Japan treaty, the U.S. is obligated to defend Japanese territory. Smith says there is deep concern in Washington about how to manage the dispute.

SMITH: The United States is an ally of Japan, and therefore wants to support Japanese efforts to defend its territory. On the other hand, no one in Washington wants to see escalating tensions between Japan and China, let alone anything that might lead to a calculated or miscalculated use of force between the two countries.

NORTHAM: But Ely Ratner - who until recently was on the China Desk at the State Department - says it's likely the U.S. has already been reaching out to Abe's party and Beijing to try to calm the situation. Ratner, now with the Center for a New American Security, says there are other issues that can potentially create bigger problems, particularly with other U.S. allies in the region. Abe has denied aspects of Japan's wartime history, including its use of women from Korea and other occupied countries as sex slaves for its military. Ratner says that will have major repercussions for relations with South Korea.

ELY RATNER: And this poses a challenge for the United States, who has treaty relations with both Seoul and Tokyo. And I think it befuddles a lot of American strategists that those two countries can't get along better, particularly in the face of a rising China.

NORTHAM: Or as the U.S. tries to deal with North Korea's nuclear program. Washington needs all its allies in the region to be on the same page. Michael Green, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Abe's overheated rhetoric is much different than his track record. Green says Abe had a strong nationalist edge to him when he first became Japan's prime minister in 2006, but he quickly took a more pragmatic view and actually improved relations with China and Korea. Green says Abe will likely moderate his rhetoric now that he's won the election.

MICHAEL GREEN: As a matter of realpolitik - and Abe is a strategic realpolitik kind of thinker - I think he'll drop it. And certainly I think the U.S. government is quietly encouraging him to do that so that we can move forward together to deal with the problems we face today and in the future.

NORTHAM: Washington will have a chance to do that soon enough. Abe says his first visit when he takes office will be to the U.S. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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