Two prominent U.S. experts on Japan refused Tuesday to predict how the U.S. government would react if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Yasukuni Shrine next month, an act that would undoubtedly add further strain to already frayed relations with China and South Korea.
Speaking at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Kurt Campbell, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, refrained from making any guesses on what kind of response could be expected from the Obama administration.
Instead, Green, stressing that it is purely his personal view, said only that the administration shouldn’t criticize Abe even if he visits the Tokyo shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead — including convicted Class-A criminals from World War II.
Since taking office, Abe has not made any comments on whether he will visit Yasukuni, which is viewed by many foreign countries as a symbol of Japan’s militarism of the 1930s and 1940s. The Shinto shrine draws large crowds, including elected officials, every Aug. 15., the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II.
“I personally think that under any circumstances, it would be a mistake to be criticizing the Japanese prime minister,” Green said.
A former adviser to President George W. Bush, he said when then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the Shinto shrine in August 2006, there was intense debate in the White House about how to react.
“In the end, President Bush decided that one of the worst things that the U.S. can do would be to publicly threaten or criticize such a trusted ally as Japan, given the expanding confidence of China in Asia,” Green said.
Campbell, who stepped down in February as the top State Department official on East Asia, declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate for someone who just left the government to talk about such a delicate issue in a public forum.
Instead, he shared an episode that indicates how strongly Obama feels about the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance.
According to Campbell, during an unofficial U.S.-China summit in California in June, Chinese President Xi Jinping raised some concerns against Japan and was going on about it for some length before Obama interrupted him.
“President Obama stopped (Xi) and said that ‘Japan is an ally, Japan is a friend and Japan is a democracy, and you need to understand that very clearly,’ ” Campbell said.
Meanwhile, both experts said that the U.S. will defend the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea if they come under armed attack from China, which claims the uninhabited chain as its territory.
Green said the U.S. government, regardless of whether the president is a Republican or Democrat, will apply Article 5 of the 1960 Japan-U.S. security treaty should China use force against Japan regarding the Senkaku Islands.
Article 5 states that the U.S. will defend “territories under the administration of Japan” against armed attack.
Green’s observation was echoed by Campbell.
“We have a decent record in supporting and preserving peace and stability with respect to Japan for 70 years and we are not about to walk away from those commitments anytime soon,” he said.