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Tuesday, December 6, 2016
- In a move that promises to further raise geopolitical tensions in the region, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a high-profile visit to the Yasukuni Shrine associated with 14 Class-A war criminals and dedicated to 2.5 million soldiers from the Japanese Imperial era.
The Dec. 26 visit marked the first time in seven years that a Japanese leader personally visited the controversial site, which has served as major flashpoint in the country’s long-troubled relations with its Asian neighbours.
China and South Korea swiftly denounced Abe’s visit, portraying it as a provocative honouring of Tokyo’s imperial past. For them, Abe’s actions reflect his increasingly overt nationalist tilt, reviving age-old fears of a new militaristic Japan.
Meanwhile, allies such as the U.S. expressed their regrets over the issue, and prodded Japan to avoid fuelling a combustible regional dynamic, as Asian neighbours tussle over a number of contested features in the Western Pacific. Even Southeast Asian states such as Singapore broke with their long tradition of diplomatic subtlety, openly expressing dismay at Abe’s decision.
Against the backdrop of rising territorial tensions between China and its neighbours in the East and South China Seas, namely Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, the Abe administration has tried to assume the mantle of leadership in Asia. It has sought to rally smaller neighbours against what it perceives as a common Chinese threat to maritime security and freedom of navigation in the Western Pacific.
But, many analysts contend, Abe’s decision to ignore widely held opposition to any high-level visit to the Yasukuni Shrine could seriously undermine Japan’s charm-offensive in Asia – and its bid to isolate China.
For many neighbours, Japan is yet to come clean on its historical atrocities, especially during the Second World War, where tens of thousands of Asian neighbours bore the brunt of systematic abuse at the hands of the Japanese imperial army.
In contrast to post-War Germany, which experienced a decisive break with the Nazi era, critics claim that Japan was allowed to maintain much of its imperial bureaucracy, avoid an outright and sustained apology on its past crimes, and, gradually over time, indulge in a revisionist account of its imperial history.
“Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine trampled the feelings of the people victimised by Japan’s military aggression. It is a challenge to all the people in the world who love peace,” declared Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy advisor and former foreign minister.
“It’s also a challenge to the post-war order and the victory of anti-fascism war. Undoubtedly, Abe’s wrongdoings are and should be reprimanded by the Chinese people and the international community.”
Given the long-running historical animosity between China and Japan, exacerbated by territorial tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, Beijing’s rancorous condemnations came as little surprise. Worryingly though, South Korea, a fellow military ally of the U.S., was equally stern in its denouncements.
“The government cannot help but feel outraged by and deplore the December 26 visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Yasukuni shrine,” South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se lamented, reflecting the deeper geopolitical implications of Abe’s actions.
“[The visit] glorifies Japan’s past colonial rule and war of aggression and enshrines its war criminals, in defiance of the concerns and warnings of neighbouring countries and the international community.”
For months, Abe has been seeking a special summit with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts, Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye, respectively. The summit was supposed to address, among other things, renewed tensions over China’s late-November decision to impose an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, which covered contested maritime features claimed by both South Korea and Japan.
The Yasukuni Shrine visit effectively extinguished the prospects of a top-level meeting for the foreseeable future, further deepening diplomatic anxiety in the region.
“Japan is a valued ally and friend…[But] the United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbours,” said a statement by the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, expressing Washington’s fear of uncontrolled escalation in regional tensions.
Singapore, an influential member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), also chipped in, with its Ministry of Foreign Affairs stating: “Our consistent position has been that such visits reopen old grievances, and are unhelpful to building trust and confidence in the region.”
In many ways, Abe’s decision to visit Yasukuni reflects his domestic political calculations as well as personal views. Abe’s main constituency lies within the ultra-conservative camp, both the right-wing members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan as well as other ultra-nationalist coalition partners, which have been vocal proponents of resuscitating Japan’s regional leadership.
They have combined historical revisionism, underwritten by frequent denials of Japan’s past atrocities, with a call for re-arming Japan.
“I prayed to pay respect for the war dead who sacrificed their precious lives and hoped that they rest in peace,” said Abe, adamantly justifying his decision to visit the shrine in a “purely personal capacity”.
Abe, who hails from one of Japan’s most prominent political families, is considered to belong to the more conservative-nationalist wing of the LDP, and has been consolidating legislative support for revising the country’s pacifist constitution, which bars Japan from developing a standing army with an offensive military capability.
Beyond his core constituency, however, Abe has courted growing popular support by effectively utilising a charismatic brand of leadership. Among his signature policies is a series of economic reforms dubbed ‘Abenomics’ which aim to revive the Japanese economy through the introduction of expansionary policies and structural reforms.
So far, Abe’s policies seem to have succeeded at regenerating a measure of confidence in the economy, gradually ending decades of stagnation and deflation. Trade relations with neighbours such as China, meanwhile, have shown considerable resilience, given the symbiotic nature of bilateral economic linkages.
Overall, having secured his footing on the domestic political landscape, Abe seems to have gained enough confidence to more openly express his nationalist views, relentlessly pushing forward with buttressing his country’s military capabilities and foreign policy assertiveness. But his hawkish policies could ultimately undermine his bid to make Japan an East Asian leader steering a regional alliance against China.