WASHINGTON – The administration of President Barack Obama plans to urge the Japanese government to take concrete action to repair ties with China and South Korea, according to senior U.S. officials.
In light of the fallout expected from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first official pilgrimage to war-related Yasukuni Shrine last month, the United States is worried the provocative act will undermine the stability of the region and is closely watching to see whether he will pray at the shrine again, the officials said.
The moves reflect the Obama administration’s concerns that the bad blood between Japan and its neighbors will adversely affect Washington’s alliances in Asia.
In a rare statement after Abe’s Yasukuni visit, the U.S. government said it was “disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.”
A senior official in the Obama administration said the statement was not a particularly scathing expression but accurately described a candid feeling of disappointment on the U.S. side. It stemmed from discontent that Tokyo did not heed a warning from its top security ally against visiting the Shinto shrine, the official said.
When Abe’s adviser, Seiichi Eto, visited the United States in November, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel made it clear that a Yasukuni visit by Abe would hurt bilateral ties.
Eto replied that the trip was a campaign promise for the December 2012 general election, the U.S. officials said.
On Dec. 26, Abe’s team informed Washington of his decision to go to the shrine about 90 minutes before the visit.
The pilgrimage, the first by a sitting Japanese leader in seven years, drew immediate rebukes from China and South Korea, who suffered from Japanese aggression before and during World War II and regard the shrine as a symbol of the nation’s past militarism. Yasukuni honors Japan’s war dead, including Class-A war criminals.
According to the U.S. officials, the Obama administration is worried that plans to revise the Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines may draw protests from regional players, including China, and weaken the trilateral framework with South Korea that forms the basis of Washington’s “Asia pivot” strategy.
The plan, they said, is primarily aimed at ensuring regional stability, but it is widely viewed as a bid to engage an increasingly assertive China.
Obama is scheduled to make a swing through Asia in April, including his first visit to Japan in about 3½ years. But if Tokyo is unable to find a way to mend fences with Beijing and Seoul at a time of rising tensions, calls for the president to steer clear of Japan during the tour may find growing support within his administration.