• Fri
  • Dec 26, 2014
  • Updated: 10:48pm
NewsAsia
ANALYSIS: EAST ASIA

Abe's shrine visit throws regional affairs into a state of confusion

Inflammatory and puzzling gesture by Japan premier has thrown regional issues into confusion

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 January, 2014, 11:45pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 January, 2014, 9:14am

A week after Shinzo Abe's controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on the first anniversary of his return to power as Japan's prime minister, the motivations behind the inflammatory gesture remain puzzling.

But whatever his aim, the repercussions will further complicate the handling of several thorny regional issues.

In a region already bedevilled by maritime tensions and an increasingly unpredictable North Korea, experts said Abe's visit to the shrine on December 26 had shut down avenues for dialogue on how to better manage these issues. And this poses a dilemma for Japan's biggest ally, the United States.

"It's a weird kind of political dynamic in East Asia now," said David Arase, a professor of international politics at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Centre.

Abe's shrine visit represents a reversal of his first-term policy, and its timing caught many by surprise. When he succeeded Junichiro Koizumi in 2006, Abe steered clear of the shrine and made a priority of repairing relations with China and South Korea. Japan's ties with both were strained under Koizumi, whose repeated visits to the shrine were seen an affront, given that 14 "class A" war criminals are among the millions of war dead enshrined there.

Watch: Abe's controversial visito to Yasukuni Shrine

But after regaining power in 2012, Abe made it clear that he regretted not visiting the shrine during his first stint as prime minister. Some quietly expected a shrine visit by Abe, but few thought it would take place on the first anniversary of his second term.

To Japan's neighbours, Abe is sending a strong message that he is no longer interested in mending ties with them, said Michael Auslin, director of Japanese studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"Abe tried, in his own interpretation, for a year to get better relations with both countries, and at the end of that first year relations were worse … going to the shrine was a way to send the message to Beijing and Seoul that he understands that they do not want better relations, and he is fine with that," said Auslin. But regional diplomacy is more complicated than it was during Koizimi's time, and Abe could face broader consequences.

The possibility of managing maritime risks in the East China Sea has been considerably diminished, said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow of Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"So now risk reduction [on the East China Sea] is not possible as there is no diplomatic dialogue, and now with more hardening of positions between the two countries, this means we are in for a very intense couple of years in the East China Sea," Smith said.

With Sino-Japanese tensions over a set of uninhabited islands flaring up in recent years, and civilian and naval patrol boats converging on the area, there were already concerns about the potential for conflict. Tension escalated in November when China declared an air defence identification zone above the sea.

Complicating calculations is the potential for instability in North Korea. The recent execution of Jang Song-thaek, the once-powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has raised concerns that Pyongyang could make a provocative gesture of its own. China lost an important conduit of communication with Pyongyang in Jang, and co-ordination between Seoul and Tokyo is likely to be absent.

For Washington, the shrine visit, which the US described as a "disappointment", presents a dilemma. Analysts said Washington was frustrated not only because Abe had escalated tensions but because he made repairing ties between Seoul and Tokyo almost impossible. This impedes US President Barack Obama's "Asia Pivot" policy.

"For the US, it's very difficult that two major allies are not talking to each other. It hurts planning and hurts your influence," said Auslin.

As Japan finalises debate on a reinterpretation of its constitution this year, Abe could finally be able to push through his vision of greater overseas presence for Japan's self-defence force. If adopted, the reinterpretation could allow Japan to provide military support to the US and its allies outside Japan's territory.

"This is increasingly important for both Japan and US," said Arase. "The US is starting to have its hands full in the event of China's military build-up. The US never needed help to deal with the Soviet Union and China in the past - now it might."

Abe's shrine visit was quickly followed by an agreement to relocate a US military base away from populated areas in Okinawa, Japan, a deal long sought by Washington.

The timing suggested a calculated move by Abe, Auslin said. "He knew the shrine visit was going to cause Washington heartburn, but he was offsetting it with stuff that is objectively more important."

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This article is now closed to comments

hongkiejj@malaysiaboleh
What abe is doing is a sly calculation to intentionally provoke china and openly challenge china to bring it on to the next level with likely some tactical approval from USA. Mind you, Korea and all others countries are not in the same equation here and are not part and parcel of this “I dare you” game.
Abe knows full well japan is in a decline. There is nothing to shout about in japan. Declining yet old population, stagnant or declining economy and his much vaunted abenomics is just a momentarily feel good affair and without real solid structural reform, japan will fail yet again. All his arrows will sizzle before it reaches its target.
Meanwhile, across the pacific, obama is pretty stuck back home with multiple problems as well. The economy is still lingering half full or half empty and the republicans and tea parties are crucifying him on all fronts. His hands are tied and he has surrendered his foreign policy to both hagel and kerry to trash it out. Both have been critical of china lately and turning a blind eye to abe intention to reverse japan pacifist post-World War II constitution. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they do want a war. Maybe they don’t want to pay their debts. Who knows what is in their mind nowadays.
hongkiejj@malaysiaboleh
China president Xi is busy consolidate his power and implementing multiple reforms to deal with multiple problems like pollution, corruption and its economy is slowing down too. There are more pressing issues for xi and his comrades now but the issue with japan is a problem that will not die or simply walk away. The failure to deal assertively over japan will be a big loss of face and will prevent xi from successfully implementing his reforms. Within his inner circle, there will be those waiting and bidding their time to replace xi if he fails to deal with japan decisively. Afterall, xi is winning over the public with his no nonsense anti-corruption game which we should all applaud but since corruption is so rampant, xi has made quite a lot of enemies as well. He has effectively cut off their “free bonuses” so to speak and xi is threading a fine line and needs to be careful.
Despite the odds, I believe the president of china still retains the best hope to reform china and to pursue peace and stability if he chooses. Xi is relentless, smart, patience and bidding his time and more importantly he knows the public is backing him.
Japan has fire the first shot by challenging xi to make his next move. Abe will be the same abe of the past…the reincarnation of his grandfather. A class A war criminal dat should have face the gallows yet was released for reasons I do not understand nor care now.
hongkiejj@malaysiaboleh
Lets not deceive ourselves. The visit @ ys is a calculated move and not a visit to pray for peace or to pledge to make no war. It is a statement. A challenge to those dat dares to defile his beliefs. Japan is back…so say the slogan.
How xi will deal with abe in the next 4 years will be crucial to us all in this region or any region at all.
The smart move for xi is to wait and bid his time to solidify his position and to strengthen his country economy and military prowess to be a force to be reckoned with and not a force to threaten with. The longer this game is play out, abe and his rightwing party will have to back down and concede defeat without a single shot fired.

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