A provocation

December 30, 2013 - 6:56:18 am
In diplomacy and international relations, a country is always expected to refrain from doing things that will antagonize its allies. Another rule is that when tensions are already running high in a region, any action that will exacerbate the situation should be scrupulously avoided.

On both counts, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe erred last week and it caused a huge furore in the region. He paid the first visit by a Japanese prime minister in seven years to the Yasukuni memorial in Tokyo, where, among others, war criminals from World War II are enshrined. The move provoked outrage in China and South Korea. Yasukuni Shrine is believed to be the repository of around 2.5 million souls of Japan’s war dead, most of them common soldiers, but also including several high-level officials executed for war crimes after World War II. South Korea and China see it as a symbol of Tokyo’s lack of repentance for the horrors of last century and say it downplays the country’s brutal past.

The fact that Abe’s visit is the first by a prime minister in seven years shows that previous prime ministers had carefully stayed away from an action that could inflame passions. Abe described his visit, which came days after he gave Japan’s military its second consecutive annual budget bump, as a pledge against war and said it was not aimed at hurting feelings in China or South Korea. But that explanation is unlikely to assuage hurt feelings. 

The most important fallout of the visit is that it can weaken the anti-China sentiment in the region. Beijing had united its neighbors last month when it unilaterally declared an air-defence zone in the East China Sea, covering territory claimed by Japan and South Korea. That act prompted a show of support from the United States to its allies, which dispatched B-52s through the new zone without notice to Beijing. It also set the stage for closer security relations between Japan and the US, and gave hopes of an improvement in strained relations between Japan and South Korea.

Also, the visit caused embarrassment to Washington, which criticized the action. A statement issued by the US Embassy in Tokyo said that Washington was disappointed that ‘Japan’s leadership had taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbours.’ In China, the visit was used by the state media to whip up anti-Japan sentiment to new heights.

Abe is known for his different version of history and is following a more aggressive strategy to win support at home for his plans to boost defence spending. But he has to refrain from actions that will weaken his international standing and Japan’s security•
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