BEIJING – Chinese President Xi Jinping’s reaction to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine will determine whether Asia’s top two economies come closer to a hostile incident.
Xi’s options after Abe’s appearance Thursday at Yasukuni — the first by a sitting prime minister since 2006 — range from sticking with verbal condemnation to unleashing public anti-Japanese protests to stepping up naval or air challenges against Japan’s forces in the East China Sea.
Xi and Abe, 15 months apart in age and around one year in to their leadership terms, are overseeing expansions in their militaries, with the two nations locked in a dispute over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands, which hinder China’s access to the western Pacific and may be surrounded by rich resources.
Xi, 60, must navigate domestic demands from those pushing for a swift backlash against the need to control social unrest. For Abe, the visit, which drew disappointment from the United States, Japan’s top ally, risks resumed damage to Japanese business in China. Yasukuni enshrines the nation’s war dead, including 14 convicted or accused Class-A war criminals.
“It is going to aggravate the already tense situation,” Dorothy Solinger, a professor of politics at the University of California, Irvine, said of Abe’s visit, which drew a written protest from the Chinese Foreign Ministry within an hour.
“Anti-Japanese protests and popular — though at least indirectly regime-instigated — boycotts could ensue,” Solinger said, adding such a reaction “is more likely than military or official economic moves.”
Tensions have been running high over the last year as China and Japan continue to send aircraft and ships to trail each other around the Senkakus in the East China Sea. Beijing claims them as Diaoyu. Tokyo’s decision to buy some of the main islets from their private owner in September 2012 provoked street protests and attacks on Japanese businesses throughout mainland China, damaging a $366 billion a year trade relationship.
Earlier this month, Abe, 59, called for a summit with Xi to reset relations. His visit to Yasukuni all but eliminates the possibility of high-level talks, according to Taylor Fravel, a professor at MIT who studies China’s ties with its neighbors.
“Xi will almost certainly not meet with Abe as long as Abe is prime minister,” he said. “Few substantive agreements will be reached, especially those sorely needed for crisis management.”
In November, China established an air defense identification zone over the Senkakus, drawing criticism from Japan, the United States and South Korea. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited the region in early December, asking leaders in Tokyo and Beijing to “lower the temperature” in their dispute.
Washington is “disappointed” that Tokyo’s leadership took actions that will exacerbate tensions, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement Thursday. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said in a statement that the action was “not conducive to lowering tensions in the region or to improving relations” with Japan’s neighbors.
Abe visited Yasukuni on the one-year anniversary of his second ascension to power, but the date coincided with the 120th anniversary of the birth of Mao Zedong, with Chinese leaders including Xi honoring the communist state’s founding farther.
Xi, the son of a fighter in Mao’s revolution who was purged in 1962 but went on to become a vice premier after rehabilitation, must balance the domestic demands of people angry with Japan’s actions against the need for stability. China’s economic growth may slow to 7.5 percent next year, the lowest since 1990, according to analyst estimates.
“Xi has to walk a tightrope,” said Huang Jing, a professor at the National University of Singapore who focuses on Chinese politics. “Sometimes a radical force has to be contained by radical responses. Xi also has a country to preside over and there are also complaints that he’s too soft.”
During last year’s anti-Japan protests, hundreds of demonstrators marched outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, while Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. reported that dealerships in China had been damaged by fire.
“Abe’s actions are taking Japan in a very dangerous direction,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Thursday when he summoned Japan’s ambassador, Masato Kitera, to explain the Yasukuni visit.
Abe is a grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime commerce minister who served as prime minister in the 1950s. The move comes as his popularity declines at home. A poll published Tuesday by the Mainichi Shimbun found 49 percent of respondents supported the Abe administration, down 5 percentage points from November and falling below the 50 percent mark for the first time since Abe’s general election win in December 2012.
The Yasukuni pilgrimage also comes amid a broader military buildup by both nations. Abe increased Japan’s defense budget this year for the first time in 11 years and the Defense Ministry wants another budget hike for the 2014 fiscal year, a move that would return military spending to its highest level since 2005.
“China will take a harder line over the issue of the Diaoyu (Senkaku Islands),” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “China will continue to develop its military power, especially long-range firing capabilities, with Japan as the target.”