A gen­tle rap on Abe’s knuck­les

Ja­panese PM’s visit to Ya­sukuni Shrine may have dis­pleased the US but it’s un­likely to change the terms of their al­liance

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe vis­ited the Ya­sukuni Shrine, which hon­ors 14 Class-A war crim­i­nals, on Dec 26 draw­ing the con­dem­na­tion of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. This time even the United States, which usu­ally is in­dif­fer­ent to se­nior Ja­panese of­fi­cials vis­it­ing the shrine, was dis­ap­pointed with Abe’s ac­tion.

Many ob­servers see the dis­sat­is­fac­tion ex­pressed by the US em­bassy in Ja­pan, and the De­fense and State de­part­ments over Abe’s visit to the shrine as an un­wel­come sign for Ja­pan. Why is the Barack Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion so dis­ap­pointed with Abe?

To un­der­stand that, let us first an­a­lyze the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. Re­la­tions be­tween China and Ja­pan re­main tense be­cause of the dis­pute over the Diaoyu Is­lands, Ja­pan’s econ­omy is in a process of grad­ual re­cov­ery and the US is de­ter­mined to make its strate­gic “pivot to Asia” pol­icy a suc­cess. All this has prompted the Abe ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­place its for­mer cau­tious ap­proach with a tough pol­icy to­ward China.

The Abe ad­min­is­tra­tion seems to have made up its mind to act tough against China re­gard­less of the risk of dam­ag­ing US-Ja­pan re­la­tions, es­pe­cially be­cause it thinks that its pre­vi­ous re­straint on vis­it­ing the Ya­sukuni Shrine was hardly ap­pre­ci­ated by China.

Abe is a con­ser­va­tive try­ing to rein­ter­pret his­tory, and to keep his word, he had to visit the Ya­sukuni Shrine within one year of tak­ing of­fice. He is us­ing Ja­pan’s tough stance to­ward China to win Ja­panese pub­lic sup­port, which de­clined af­ter he im­ple­mented the Se­crecy Law.

Since the US has al­ways tried to stay clear of Asian coun­tries’ his­tor­i­cal dis­putes, Abe ex­pects it to main­tain its usual stance this time too. Also, by vis­it­ing the shrine, he tried to gauge the US’ re­ac­tion and de­cide how far he could go in the fu­ture with his provoca­tive ac­tions. And be­cause of his dis­ap­point­ment with the US’ stance on China’s Air De­fense Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Zone, he wants to tell Wash­ing­ton that he is ca­pa­ble of act­ing in­de­pen­dently.

But Abe seems to have for­got­ten that the world is not what it used to be. If his ac­tions hurt US in­ter­ests, Amer­i­can lead­ers will ask him to change his ways.

He should know that Ja­pan’s value for the US has been de­clin­ing af­ter China’s rise, and Wash­ing­ton is not will­ing to take sides be­tween Bei­jing and Tokyo. Also, un­like for­mer Ja­panese prime min­is­ter Ju­nichiro Koizumi, Abe’s per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with the US pres­i­dent is not close, so Wash­ing­ton won’t be as tol­er­ant to­ward the Abe ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Abe’s main goal is to trans­form Ja­pan into a “nor­mal state” and he can­not be happy with the US that helped draft the paci­fist Con­sti­tu­tion to im­pose strate­gic re­stric­tions on Ja­pan. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the US and Ja­pan is more like a pro­fes­sional ex­change of in­ter­ests and thus Wash­ing­ton is not ex­pected to pro­vide un­con­di­tional sup­port to all of Tokyo’s dan­ger­ous ini­tia­tives.

The US’ un­prece­dented strong re­ac­tion to Abe’s visit to the Ya­sukuni Shrine is not only be­cause of the im­me­di­ate ram­i­fi­ca­tions, but also be­cause Abe is out to vi­o­late Wash­ing­ton’s ar­range­ment for the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion.

The so-called “na­tion­al­iza­tion” of the Diaoyu Is­lands dur­ing for­mer prime min­is­ter Yoshi­hiko Noda’s ten­ure and Ja­pan’s sub­se­quent ar­bi­trary ac­tions have made Wash­ing­ton sus­pi­cious that Tokyo is try­ing to free it­self of the US’ stew­ard­ship, which may cre­ate hur­dles for its “pivot to Asia” pol­icy.

Re­ports say that Abe in­formed the US of his visit to the shrine just one hour be­fore do­ing so, which Wash­ing­ton might have seen as an act of “de­fi­ance” by the Ja­panese prime min­is­ter.

But the US and Ja­pan still share a close re­la­tion­ship. The core of the US’ Ja­pan pol­icy is to use Ja­pan to check China, sus­tain­ing Tokyo as an in­dis­pens­able Wash­ing­ton ally. That’s why the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is likely to adopt a sup­port­ive stance to­ward Tokyo on other is­sues and avoid send­ing out a wrong sig­nal about US-Ja­pan ties.

Given the above facts, Wash­ing­ton will only warn Tokyo, with­out do­ing any­thing more, about its re­cent ill-con­ceived ac­tions. Any changes in the US’ pol­icy to­ward Ja­pan would be strictly within the realm of the US-Ja­pan al­liance.

More­over, Abe prob­a­bly doesn’t in­tend to free Ja­pan of US con­trol as for­mer prime min­is­ter Yukio Ha­toyama tried to do and ul­ti­mately re­sign from of­fice. And since Abe still en­joys rel­a­tively high pop­u­lar sup­port at home, it’s not yet time for the US to chart his de­par­ture from of­fice. The au­thor is a re­searcher with the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can Stud­ies, af­fil­i­ated to the Chi­nese Academy of So­cial Sciences.

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