On 26 December 2013, the anniversary of his second administration, Shinzo Abe made a high-profile visit to the Yasukuni Shrine first thing in the morning. In the press conference he gave afterwards, Abe said that the visit fulfilled his long-cherished wish. His action and remarks shocked the world, disappointed the United States and infuriated China and the Republic of Korea. At a time when China is focused on domestic reform and opening-up, the war shrine visit puts China-Japan relations in deep freeze and disturbs the geometry of power in the western Pacific.
Tension between the two neighbors goes back to 2010, when China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy. In September of that year, Tokyo engineered a boat collision off the DiaoyuIslands. Since then, the relationship has been sour and increasingly confrontational. On 11 September 2012, the Noda administration broke the decades-long understanding to shelve territorial disputes over the DiaoyuIslands by announcing their “nationalization”, a move that accentuated Sino-Japanese disagreement. Against this backdrop, Abe was elected Prime Minister for the second time and his party subsequently gained control of both houses of the Diet. The formation of a long-term and stable government gave Abe enough political capital to exacerbate Tokyo’s antagonism with Beijing.
Once in office, Abe pursued “Abenomics”, a concept first floated during his first administration. He followed the example of the United States and resorted to “quantitative easing”, keeping the Japanese yen down and inflating asset prices. He also adopted mercantilist policies and created the illusion of an economic revival, thus boosting support for his administration and earning the capital to stay in power for a long time.
In the course of 12 months, Abe has visited the United States, Russia, Turkey, Europe and all ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). During these visits, he sought to secure natural resources, improve Japan’s geostrategic standing and seize a greater market share for Japanese products. He tried to portray Japan as a “proactive contributor to international peace” and paint himself as a world statesman. He cultivated close ties with China’s neighbors, jumped on the bandwagon of the US rebalance to Asia, reveled in “US+Japan+1” or “Japan+1” cooperation and expanded “2+2” arrangements with some countries – all in an attempt to encircle China. He sought to create an impression that the United States is in decline and China is a newcomer to the international scene, which leaves Japan as the main player. He also went out of his way to burnish his reputation as a hard-liner and heir to the right-wing nationalism of Kishi Nobusuke (his grandfather) and the diplomatic strategy of Abe Shintaro (his father) as well as the conservatism of Ronald Reagan.
Through political grandstanding, Abe tried to create a false picture of Japan’s full comeback – economically, politically and security-wise – while in fact, the country is sinking. After the Cold War, the Clinton administration concluded that Japan was engaging in a different kind of capitalism. The economic frictions that plagued Japan-US relations in the 1980s turned into a systemic clash in the subsequent decade. Since 2001, tectonic shifts have taken place in the global political and economic landscape. The first decade of the 21st century saw the integration of the Chinese and US markets and the convergence of the two civilizations that they represent. Japan and its brand of regionalism were in danger of being swept away by the waves of the Pacific Ocean. Recognizing this danger, some Japanese scholars suggested that the only way for Tokyo to stay relevant was to cultivate good relations with ASEAN countries and reintegrate itself with the rest of Asia. However, Japan’s vision of an “East Asian Community” was torn apart by US participation in the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2010 and Washington’s push for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. The US pivot to the Asia-Pacific changed the balance of power in the region, built new trans-Pacific bridges and weakened the position of Japan, reducing it to the battlefield of the much trumpeted “AirSea Battle” idea. Seeing all of this, Abe calculated that to keep Japan at the top table, he has to hew closely to the US tune, disturb the regional calm and halt Washington’s westward thrust to the Indian Ocean.
This may be what Abe’s national security strategy boils down to. To achieve his goal, Abe has to distract China. In 2014, China will host APEC leaders and a conference on the peace and reconstruction of Afghanistan, and Beijing cannot afford not to have Japan in these meetings. This helps to explain why at a delicate moment in China-Japan relations, Abe still chooses to make the surprise visit to the Yasukuni Shrine – for the move will put China in a bind: do nothing, and China risks accepting the legitimacy of future visits to the shrine; overreact, and China’s diplomatic agenda will be put in jeopardy. Abe has also made the bet that since Japan has contributed so much, financially and otherwise, to Myanmar’s democratization, Rangoon will not be able to turn Japan away from the ASEAN-plus meetings and EAS that it will host in 2014.
Since the 1993 Seattle summit, APEC has become a platform of China-US cooperation as well as the venue of US domination of Asia-Pacific affairs. Beijing’s priorities for next year’s APEC will reflect the direction of China-US relations; how Afghanistan fares in 2014 will be crucial to Obama’s global strategy and a key focus of China-US collaboration. And the bilateral and trilateral relationships involving China, the United States and Japan will shape Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Hence the multiple purposes of Abe’s visit to the war shrine at this point in time. However, if the prompt expression of “disappointment” from the US embassy in Tokyo is any indication, Abe’s calculated move may not achieve all of the above objectives. On the contrary, he may have lifted a rock – only to drop it on his own toes.
Liu Junhong is a Research fellow at the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations.