China and US should work together to rein in Abe

Two sides share common ground after ill-timed shrine visit undercut Washington's 'pivot' to Asia

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 4:56am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 5:58am

There is never a right time for a Japanese prime minister to visit the controversial Yasukuni war shrine because it honours, among 2.5 million Japanese war dead, 14 Class A war criminals from the second world war.

Such visits always provoke condemnations from China and South Korea - both victims of Japan's wartime atrocities - and often trigger political, diplomatic and economic instability.

But Shinzo Abe's Boxing Day trip, the first time a sitting prime minister has paid homage to the shrine since 2006, could not have come at a worse time. Ties between Japan, China and South Korea, the region's three main economies, have already been frayed by territorial disputes and Beijing's declaration of an air defence identification zone over most of the East China Sea.

The shrine trip has made the situation even worse, judging from the swift and strongly worded protests by Beijing and Seoul.

Some Japanese media reports suggested that Abe, who had expressed regret over not visiting the shrine during his first stint as prime minister seven years ago, went this time because he saw no chance for improved ties with Beijing and Seoul in the near future. So he chose to risk their anger now and try to repair the damage in the new year.

If this was indeed part of his thinking, Abe has miscalculated badly. Moreover, he is taking the serious risk of having Japan isolated in the international community.

With China's leadership under President Xi Jinping taking a more assertive stance on international issues, Abe's visit is only expected to harden the resolve to get tough on Japan.

Already, the hawkish tabloid the Global Times, which is published under the People's Daily, has urged the mainland authorities to declare Abe a persona non grata and ban him from visiting China. The existence of such sentiment shows that the chances of any significant improvement is very low in the months ahead.

Outsiders who are unfamiliar with Japan's wartime history are often surprised by the strong reactions from Chinese and Koreans when Japanese politicians visit the shrine.

Both peoples see the shrine as the most prominent symbol of Japan's refusal to fully repent for the atrocities it inflicted on them and others in the Asia-Pacific region. The Class A war criminals honoured in the shrine were directly responsible for the deaths of millions of civilians during the war.

One is Iwane Matsui, the Imperial Japanese Army general who led the invasion force in China. He was convicted and hanged for ordering the Nanking massacre in which some 300,000 Chinese perished.

Unlike contemporary German leaders who have showed total remorse for the atrocities committed by the Nazis and have visited former concentration camps to pay their respects, many Japanese politicians have been accused over the years of whitewashing the country's war history.

Abe is well known for his conservative views on the subject. Since he came to power nearly a year ago, he has increased military spending and passed a secrecy law. He also sought to revise the country's pacifist constitution, which would set the stage for the country to once again have a fully fledged military instead of a self-defence force.

This has aroused great concern in China and South Korea.

Another sign of Abe's miscalculation was the stronger than expected reaction from Washington, which expressed disappointment in the shrine visit, saying it would "exacerbate tensions" in the region.

Some Japanese media reports have suggested that Washington repeatedly urged Abe through informal channels not to visit the shrine, worrying that it could develop into a major international issue.

In another sign of Washington's displeasure, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel reportedly cancelled a scheduled phone call on Friday with his Japanese counterpart without explanation.

Japan is not only a key ally of Washington's - hosting several US bases and nearly 50,000 military personnel - but also an important part of its policy "pivot" towards Asia. The US reaction shows that it is very much concerned that Abe's visit will cause create unnecessary headwinds against its plans.

The US criticism may help explain reports that mainland police have prevented activists from taking to the streets to protest against Japan. Beijing may intend to take advantage of the situation and solicit Washington's help behind the scenes to rein in Abe. It may find Washington receptive.

That could prove mutually beneficial to both Washington and Beijing as they attempt to build a "new type of major power relationship" in Asia's fast-changing geopolitical environment.