On Dec 26 last year, for the first time in seven years a Japanese prime minister visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which according to Shinto belief houses nearly 2.5 million Japanese war dead. Among those honoured in the shrine are 14 convicted Class A war criminals, including former prime minister Hideki Tojo who was executed for war crimes in 1948. The shrine is seen by Japan’s neighbours as a symbol of the country’s past militarism. As Shinzo Abe paid his respects at the Yasukuni shrine his act delighted nationalist right-wingers at home but angered China and South Korea across the Sea of Japan.
Abe sought to contain the damage caused by the visit by portraying it as an anti-war gesture and not a “homage to war criminals” as the visit had been construed to be. He clarified that “it is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people”.
Timing of the Visit
Abe’s decision to visit surprised some analysts as he had stayed away from Yasukuni during his first stint as prime minister in 2006-07. The timing of the visit on the anniversary of his return to power year ago, even as the country has been focussing on the ‘three arrows’ of economic reforms and when Japan’s relations with its neighbours (China and South Korea) has been at its lowest ebb in recent times, was equally perplexing.
Both Chinese and South Korean leaders have refused to meet Abe since he became prime minister in 2012 citing issues of territory in the East China Sea and Korean comfort women respectively. He has been rebuffed for nearly a year by the South Korean president, who has met with the Chinese. Many would even say that from Abe’s perspective, relations with China and South Korea are currently so poor that there seemed little to lose after the visit to the shrine. It may also be a signal that he will not bend backwards for better relations with China and Korea at the cost of his concept of Japanese national interests.
The timing of Abe’s visit to Yasukuni coincided with Japan’s approval for the relocation of Futenma US air base on Okinawa prefecture’s main island to a less populated site. The strategic value of Okinawa to US seemed to give Abe just the opportunity to fulfil his commitment to his domestic constituency by visiting Yasukuni.
The visit prompted open criticism from the US embassy in Tokyo which expressed disappointment with Japan’s leadership for an action that will exacerbate tensions with its neighbours. The US with its own rebalancing to Asia, appeared to accord priority to Japan’s optimising its relations with its Asian neighbours. Abe’s move to visit the shrine seemed to reinforce existing US fears that his administration’s nationalist stand could worsen tensions in the region.
The US response appeared to be in line with its stance on China’s establishment of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in November 2013 which overlapped Japan’s own ADIZ and included the tiny disputed islands known in Japan as the Senkakus and in China as the Diaoyus. Beijing’s declaration of the East China Sea ADIZ had been perceived as an overt challenge to Japan’s prestige by the government in Tokyo. Consequently US Vice President Biden’s failure to demand a repeal of the ADIZ during his recent visit to Beijing only served to disappoint Tokyo. Some experts view Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine as a retort to China’s declaration of the ADIZ.
Many in Japan feel the visit only addressed domestic issues and was a gesture of gratitude by Abe to his conservative supporters for their continued support after his fall from power in 2007 and who have since expected such a response. After all Abe had expressed regret for staying away from Yasukuni during his first stint as prime minister. However the fact remains that cooperation among Korea, China and Japan and the trilateral alliance among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo seems to have taken a hit.
The other viewpoint is that the visit to Yasukuni is a well thought out event on a new trajectory Abe has charted out for Japan. The visit and the expected reaction from China and South Korea only serve as an excuse for Abe to disregard all the signals from China and pursue his goal of transforming the Japanese military from one that is strictly for territorial defence to a global force. The visit to Yasukuni is part of this agenda.
Besides shoring up defence capabilities, establishing a four-member National Security Council, headed by the prime minister at the ministerial level and designating a full-time national security adviser, Abe has been focusing on developing strategic partnerships with other Asian neighbours. This comes with the realisation that his assertiveness is bound to affect trade with its two biggest partners China and South Korea.
In an intense round of diplomacy over the last year, Abe has travelled to all the 10 countries of Southeast Asia and held a summit meeting with the leaders of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Tokyo in December. During the meet, leaders reviewed existing cooperation under the ASEAN-Japan Plan of Action 2011-2015 as per the objective of the ASEAN-Japan 10 Year Strategic Economic Cooperation Roadmap (2012–2022) to double the flow of goods, services and investments by 2022. Abe is putting Japan on a path of increasing diplomatic and economic self-reliance with the belief that it is the right response to continued tensions with Beijing and Seoul.
Besides defence and maritime cooperation, it is this Japanese desire to distribute its core economic risks to other destinations in Asia, particularly in India’s neighbourhood, which would interest India. Myanmar is one such country ideal for joint projects. Earlier this year when Abe visited Myanmar, he agreed to forgo the $1.74 billion debt Myanmar owed Japan and in turn pledged more than half a billion dollars to developing infrastructure and power projects in the country. This debt cancellation followed an earlier $3.5 billion Japanese write-off of Myanmar debts. Japanese companies Mitsubishi Corp, Sumitomo Corp and Marubeni Corp recently formed a joint venture to develop a part of the 6,000-acre Thilawa Special Economic Zone near Yangon. The 17 billion yen ($170 million) project is Japan’s largest investment in Myanmar to date.
Yasukuni might be Abe’s way of signalling that Japan is not willing to accept a new strategic order in Asia under which Japanese interests are sidelined by Washington to avoid antagonising Beijing. The visit might actually challenge the notion of Japan as a strategic client of the US and see the emergence of a more assertive Japan, changing power dynamics not only in Northeast Asia but in the Indian Ocean as well. It is this shift in Japanese strategic posture that India might enjoin to counter forces attempting to disturb prevailing power equations in its own back yard.
This article appeared at the South Asia Monitor and is reprinted with permission.