TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday criticized China for shutting "all the doors" to dialogue because of the countries' territorial disputes, as he joined other party leaders in a debate a day before campaigning officially starts for July 21 parliamentary elections.
"It is wrong to shut all the doors just because a problem occurred. It is wrong to reject summit talks because the other party gets on a nerve, or doesn't accept a demand," Abe said.
The ongoing diplomatic row between Japan and China over a group of East China Sea islands claimed by both has been a flashpoint of contention, with Chinese surveillance and navy vessels increasingly present around the islands.
Japan and other Asian countries that also have territorial disputes with China will work together to keep order in the region "by rules of law," Abe said.
"China's ongoing behavior is not tolerated by the international society, and we seek to push for a more peaceful approach," he said.
Flanked by eight other party leaders in a debate held at the Japan National Press Club, Abe was the target of many of the questions posed by political rivals and experts querying his economic policies, views on revising the constitution, nuclear power and ties with China and South Korea, as well as his views on Japan's wartime history.
During the debate, Abe also played up signs of economic recovery and appealed to voters for political stability.
Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, are expected to gain a majority in the less powerful upper house through the elections, when half the chamber's 242 seats will be up for grabs. That would give them control of both chambers of parliament for as long as three years if early elections aren't called, making it easier to pass legislation after years of gridlock from a "twisted parliament," in which the opposition controls the upper house.
Abe's Cabinet has enjoyed relatively strong public support since taking office in December after the LDP's landslide victory in lower house elections, thanks largely to his three-pronged economic revival program dubbed "Abenomics," which includes massive monetary easing and public spending. Business confidence has bounced back, stock prices have risen sharply and the weaker yen has given exporters relief.
Abe boasted about Japan's 4.1 percent annual economic growth rate in the first quarter, and pledged to lift the country out of years of deflation.
"Thanks to everyone's strength, politics has changed and the economy has begun to move," he said. "We will win the election, end the twisted parliament and deliver visible results that you can see."
Amid growing concerns about the diplomatic impact of his nationalistic views, Abe was cautious on historical issues Wednesday. He said Japanese – including politicians – had a right to pray at Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni war shrine, but refused to say whether he will visit the site on Aug. 15 to mark the end of World War II and pray for the 2.3 million war dead and convicted wartime leaders memorialized there.
"If I say whether to go or not to go to Yasukuni, that alone becomes a diplomatic problem. I'm not going to say anything on this," he said.
Abe has upset China and South Korea by repeatedly making remarks perceived as attempts to whitewash Japan's wartime atrocities. He has said there is no clear definition of aggression, and raised questions over Japan's past war apologies.
Questioned about whether his government will go ahead with plans to raise the sales tax in April to 8 percent from 5 percent, Abe said that raising taxes was still an essential part of reducing Japan's bulging national debt, but that his government would be making decisions while closely monitoring the economy.
The lack of an appealing alternative to the LDP should also benefit the party in the upcoming elections. Voters are deeply disappointed in the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, which ruled the country for just over three years from 2009 to the end of 2012, because it failed to deliver on campaign promises.
Currently, the LDP has 50 seats in the upper house that won't be contested, while the Komeito has nine, given them a total of 59. So together they need to win 63 seats to gain a majority of 122 in the chamber, which experts say is likely.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report.