Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers questions in the House of Councilors budget committee session at Parliament in Tokyo on Feb. 19, 2013. (KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

China has a “deeply ingrained” need to spar with Japan and other Asian neighbors over territory, because the ruling Communist Party uses the disputes to maintain strong domestic support, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in an interview.

Clashes with neighbors, notably Japan, play to popular opinion, Abe said, given a Chinese education system that emphasizes patriotism and “anti-Japanese sentiment.”

Abe’s theory on the entrenched motivation behind China’s recent naval aggression helps explain why he has spent more effort trying to counter the Chinese than make peace with them: He thinks the fierce dispute with China over an island chain in the East China Sea isn’t going away anytime soon.

Abe spoke about China in what aides described as unusually detailed terms, laying out challenges that Chinese leaders might face if other Asian countries, unnerved by Beijing’s maritime expansionism, decide to reduce trade and other economic ties. China’s government would be hurt by such moves, Abe said, because without economic growth, it “will not be able to control the 1.3 billion people . . . under the one-party rule.”

Abe also laid out his plans for deterrence, which include boosting military spending and strengthening ties with Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and other nations that share concerns about Beijing. Abe, who is to meet Friday with President Obama in Washington, said the U.S. presence in Asia is “critical” to deter China from taking territory controlled by other countries.

His comments came in an interview Saturday with The Washington Post, which The Post was granted on the condition that the article not be published until Abe was departing for Washington.

In recent years, China has played an increasingly boisterous role in the South China Sea, claiming a massive sphere of territory that includes some of the world’s most trafficked shipping lanes and overlaps with claims of a half-dozen other countries. For Japan, the dispute with China focuses on a chain of remote islands in the East China Sea known to Japanese as the Senkaku and to Chinese as the Diaoyu, several of which Japan’s central government purchased in September after previously renting.

“What is important first and foremost,” Abe said, “is to make [China] realize that they would not be able to change the rules or take away somebody’s territorial water or territory by coercion or intimidation.”

Abe’s assessment of China sounds like a version of the one that experts in Beijing give of Japan, which they say has shifted to the right on foreign policy and security issues in a bid to recover clout and pride lost during two decades of economic stagnation. Abe’s criticism of Chinese education is also notable because, during his first stint as prime minister six years ago, he revised a law to encourage a more patriotic curriculum in Japan’s classrooms.

Pragmatic and popular

Abe became prime minister for a second time in December, after making a string of far-right campaign pledges to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution and loosen certain restrictions on the armed forces. He also promised to be tougher on China than the previous government, the deeply unpopular and moderate Democratic Party of Japan, which was booted from office.

But two months into his term, Abe looks more like a pragmatist than a strident nationalist, focusing mainly on a new, and so far successful, economic policy to weaken the yen and spur inflation. His latest popularity rating is 71 percent, according to the Yomiuri newspaper, a stunning mark in a nation that has cycled through six consecutive one-year leaders.

“I have succeeded already in changing the general mood and atmosphere that was prevalent in Japan,” Abe said.

The question is whether Abe will change course and begin pushing for his controversial right-wing hobbyhorses after July parliamentary elections that could help his Liberal Democratic Party build an overwhelming majority and leave Abe emboldened. One concern is that Abe could revise earlier government apologies for atrocities committed by Japan’s World War II-era military. Abe, in the interview, said he would someday like to make a “future-oriented” statement aimed at Japan’s neighbors, but he did not elaborate on what its message would be.

Beijing has responded to Japan’s nationalization of the Senkaku Islands by sending surveillance ships and aircraft into Japanese territory, drawing Japan into a risky showdown in which the neighbors chase each other around the waters and airspace of uninhabited rocky outcroppings. Any armed conflict could draw in the United States, which is treaty-bound to protect Japan.

The 35-year shift

While historical animosities are at the root of Japan’s territorial dispute with China, the maritime conflict is relatively new. During the interview, Abe portrayed China’s actions as part of a 35-year shift that began when the Communist Party opened its once-controlled economy. China’s government has since had to abandon the hope of nationwide economic equality — “one of its pillars of legitimacy,” Abe said — forcing it to create “some different pillars,” including rapid economic growth and patriotism.

“What is unfortunate, however,” Abe added, “is that in the case of China, teaching patriotism [is equivalent to] teaching anti-Japanese sentiment. In other words, their education policy of teaching patriotism has become even more pronounced as they started the reform and opening policy.”

Abe said China’s tactics at sea are yielding “strong support” domestically. Those tactics, some analysts say, also could prove financially lucrative if China gains control of shipping lanes and access to rich fishing territory, and extracts hydrocarbon reserves.

But Abe warned that China’s sparring with its neighbors could backfire, potentially undermining trade partnerships and causing skittishness among foreign investors.

“Such behavior is going to have an effect on their economic activity at the end of the day,” he said, “because it will lead to losing the confidence of the international community, which will result in less investments in China. I believe it is fully possible to have China to change their policy once they gain that recognition.”

Yuki Oda contributed to this report.