The Japanese PM's visit to Yasukuni Shrine may have displeased the US but it's unlikely to change the terms of their alliance.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours 14 Class-A war criminals, on December 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 Defence 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 analyse 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 Defence 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 “nationalisation” 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 this, Washington will only warn Tokyo, without doing anything more, about its recent ill-conceived actions. Any changes in US policy toward Japan would be strictly within the realm of the 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.