At the joint press briefing during Abe’s visit to Washington last month, United States President Barack Obama did not mention China or the disputed islands at all. What Japan wanted most from him – to openly reiterate that the islands fell within Japanese administration – was not delivered.
In fact, American reception of Abe was at best lukewarm. This is because mainstream views in the US do not support Japanese claims over the islands.
For example, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote last September: “On balance, I find the evidence for Chinese sovereignty quite compelling. The most interesting evidence is emerging from old Japanese government documents and suggests that Japan in effect stole the islands from China in 1895 as booty of war.”
Even the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a US think-tank critical of China, urged Abe to exercise restraint. On the eve of the PM’s US visit, AEI scholar Michael Auslin, in an open letter, urged him to undertake that “Japan will never fire the first shot, nor endanger civilian life”.
To the dismay of Japan, the US Congress published a report on bilateral relations on February 15 to coincide with the visit, warning of the danger of the US being drawn into a war with China because of Abe’s hawkish policy. The report acknowledged that Japan’s “nationalisation” of the disputed islands upset the status quo, leading to massive Chinese protests.
“But most important of all, the US could become directly involved in a
military conflict between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets in the East China Sea,” it warned.
Clearly, the US political community is fully aware of the potential damage to US interests that a hawkish Japan can wreak.
The report said apart from territorial conflicts with China and South Korea, Abe’s handling of historical issues also threatens US interests in the region.
“Abe embraces a revisionist view of Japanese history that rejects the narrative of imperial Japanese aggression and victimisation of other Asians. He has been involved with groups arguing that Japan has been unjustly criticised for its behaviour as a colonial and wartime power,” said the report.
These groups, such as the Nippon Kaigi Kyokai, argue that “Japan should be applauded for liberating much of East Asia from Western colonial powers, that the 1946-1948 Tokyo war crimes tribunals were illegitimate, and that the killings by imperial Japanese troops during the 1937 ‘Nanjing Massacre’ were exaggerated or fabricated”.
“Abe’s selections for his Cabinet appear to reflect these views as he chose a number of politicians well known for advocating nationalist, and in some cases ultra-nationalist, views”, the report noted. Clearly, the report has in mind people like Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura. He advocated in an interview last October “the departure from the post-war regime”, which meant revising all aspects of Japan’s modern history, including the Tokyo War Tribunal view of history and the Kono and Murayama statements.
The Kono statement of 1993 was an apology to Asian women coerced into becoming sex slaves, issued by then chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono. The Murayama statement of 1995 was an official apology to Asian states for Japan’s war crimes made by then premier Tomiichi Murayama.
The “Tokyo War Tribunal view of history” is a term used by Japanese right-wing polemicists in reference to the conclusion at the Tokyo war crimes trial that Japan’s wars were “wars of aggression” against international law and treaties. To the rightists, this judgement of Japan’s past actions is not true, seeing instead the wars as efforts to liberate Asia from Western imperialism.
But Article 11 of the Treaty of Peace with Japan, signed in 1951, said: “Japan accepts the judgements of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and of other Allied War Crimes Courts both within and outside Japan.”
To refute this, Japan would have to dismantle the very architecture of the post-war world order brought about by the treaty, which would be a latent challenge to the US, which authored the Japanese Constitution that allowed US troops to be based in Japan.
Small wonder then that the report concluded that “Abe’s re-ascension to the premiership risks inflaming regional relations, which could disrupt regional trade, threaten security cooperation among US allies, and further exacerbate already tense relations with China”. All these explain why Abe did not get what he wanted.