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Abe’s diplomacy dogged by history, territorial disputes



Despite six months of active foreign diplomacy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces an uncertain path to improving ties with China and South Korea as territorial disputes and disagreements on wartime history continue.

Whether Abe and his top Cabinet ministers opt to visit war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender or during the shrine’s autumn festival in October will be closely watched, since such visits would certainly inflame the already frayed ties with its former war victims.

Some pundits say that even if the ruling Liberal Democratic Party wins the House of Councilors election on July 21 and achieves the kind of stable government Japan hasn’t seen in years, Abe would still need to maintain a balancing act between Japan’s domestic and diplomatic interests.

Since taking power in December, Abe has pursued an active foreign policy anchored by the Japan-U.S. security alliance. He has visited 13 countries, including the U.S., Russia and various nations in Europe, as well as Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

He has particularly promoted “economic diplomacy” by pitching civilian nuclear technology directly to leaders in the Middle East and Eastern Europe in the belief that nuclear exports can be the “ace in the hole” in reviving Japan’s economy.

In a televised address on June 26, the prime minister said he will concentrate on reviving the economy by trying to end nearly two decades of deflation before Upper House seats come up for grabs again in 2016.

“Over the next three years, during which I will have gained political stability, I will basically concentrate on it,” Abe said. “Because a country can’t maintain its national power if it has lost its economic power, such a country can’t exert its power in diplomacy or national security.”

In a policy speech in January, Abe said his diplomacy is based on “the fundamental values of freedom, democracy, basic human rights and the rule of international law,” a comment apparently directed at China, which has become increasingly assertive in making its territorial claim to the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

But Japan’s ties with its giant neighbor remain as strained as ever, and no summit between Abe and new Chinese President Xi Jinping seems likely in the foreseeable future.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who attended ASEAN-related meetings in Brunei through Tuesday, didn’t even make brief contact, let alone sit for a one-on-one meeting.

Standoffs continue over the Senkakus, claimed as Diaoyu by China and Tiaoyutai by Taiwan, with the Japan Coast Guard and Chinese surveillance ships shadowing each other.

“The biggest challenge for Japan is how it can work with China constructively” in a way conducive to the emergence of a nonhegemonic China, said former Deputy Foreign Minister Hitoshi Tanaka in a recent lecture at the Asian Affairs Research Council.

Tanaka, who now heads the Institute for International Strategy, a Tokyo-based think tank, took a cautious view of Abe’s foreign policy, saying it would not be “very wise” to upset China by pursuing what amounts to strategic containment.

Tokyo’s relations with Seoul have also stayed tense since last August, when then-President Lee Myung-bak became South Korea’s first leader to visit the pair of Korean-controlled islets Japan claims.

Hopes of mending ties with South Korea were dashed in April after Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and several other Cabinet ministers visited Yasukuni Shrine, a symbol of Japanese militarism, and Abe suggested the same month that the word “aggression” is defined differently by different countries, drawing strong reactions from Seoul.

The foreign ministers of the two countries met Monday for the first time in nine months on the sidelines of a regional security forum in Brunei. Nonetheless, South Korean President Park Geun-hye is not considering a summit with Abe for the time being due to Tokyo’s attitude on issues related to the war, the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo reported Tuesday.

Meanwhile, China and South Korea appear to be strengthening ties, fueling concerns that Japan is being isolated in the region.

Given that Japan must work closely with South Korea and the United States in the event of an emergency involving North Korea, the continuing tension between Tokyo and Seoul is “no good,” says Go Ito, professor of international relations at Meiji University.

“If North Korea attempted something now, and the Japanese prime minister and the South Korean president did not share their views, the situation would be extremely bad,” he said.

To improve ties with China and South Korea, Abe’s government must take great care in addressing issues relating to wartime history and act sensibly over disputes that fuel nationalistic sentiment on both sides.

The Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945 will be the first key test of the Abe team’s resolve to repair ties after the Upper House election, in which it stands to take control of the Diet.

In a policy debate with leaders of major political parties on Wednesday, Abe declined to say whether he intends to visit the shrine on that day, noting that commenting on the matter itself could develop into a diplomatic problem.

Meiji University’s Ito said there is a chance Abe may visit the shrine on Aug. 15, despite the predictable anger from China and South Korea, if his party wins the election by a wide margin and the public supports him.

“If he wins big and can end the divided Diet, there is nothing he should fear politically,” Ito said.

  • Bruce Chatwin

    “If he wins big and can end the divided Diet, there is nothing he should fear politically,” Ito said.

    He need not fear alienating Japan’s allies?

    Surely Ito means there is nothing he should fear in domestic politics; even this statement beggars belief.

  • zer0_0zor0

    The exchange rate disparity was definitely a problem that needed to be addressed, as it put Japanese industry at a substantial and unfair disadvantage.

    On the other hand, without returning the Senkakus to Chine/Taiwan or at least recognizing that their status is disputed, the products of Japanese companies will meet with less of a welcome than they would have otherwise.

    And for what?

  • Paldo

    The Chinese saying: a distant relative is no better than a good neighbour.
    Abe visited most countries around China in the hope that China is contained. Could he?
    JP need the gas from Russia but Russia need virtually nothing from JP. Until and unless JP resign to claim the 4 islands officially, the polar bears are no friends to JP.
    How can Mongolia lean on JP? They are surrounded by both China and Russia. JP can’t even buy the raw-earth from Mongolia. How can they export if both countries would say no for right of way.
    The mid-Asia countries are no friends to JP at any time.
    India can be a friend, provided that JP can help them technologically. But it seems that both countries do not have anything in common in culture.
    Most SE Asian countries are having good time sharing the prosperity with China. Vietnam may be the odd one out but they are cautious about JP (and the US). Philippines may be at the moment the best possible ally of JP, but economically they are too dependent of PRC (not JP) and their military are too weak to even going to the high seas.
    Due to the bad memory of the colonial past and the behaviour of present JP, Koreans will be very happy to be distant from JP for now.
    What diplomacy? A total failure for Abe san.

    • byekore

      Wrong, Japan doesn’t need China or Korea at all. The sooner Japan works with the rest of Asia more besides China and Korea, the better.

      • Jay

        No, if your argument goes with China and the Chinese political influence, maybe you’re right. But economically there is no way Japan can avoid the massive Chinese market, especially in difficult times like now.

        Besides, regardless of what pride the Japanese may have, it is an unavoidable reality that Japan needs South Korea. One of the excuses the current Japanese government led by Abe in its struggle to change the Constitution is to respond to potential crisis like the North Korean nuclear situation with Japan’s own military power. Abe’s cabinet simply does not want to stay blind until 2~3 hours before North Korea launches missile attack against any Japanese city, waiting helplessly until the Americans hand out notifications.

        Furthermore, considering the fact that not that many South East Asian countries have enough power on their own, I don’t think Japan will have much choice other than to continue its alliance with South Korea.

        When it comes to befriending ‘rest of Asia,’ Koreans may have more emotional ties with the Asians. After all, Koreans share the same miserable and rather embarrassing past of having been under the aggression of a foreign power like the ‘rest of Asia’ did.

        I don’t think it would be an easy journey for Japan to get be any closer to ‘rest of Asia’ than what the Koreans could approach to the same region in such sense.

        I think it’s important to see why last year Japan was more urgent in setting up a military intelligence cooperation agreement with South Korea. For Japan’s own safety, Japan needed potential military intelligence regarding North Korea; needless to say, more accurate and precise information obviously continuously comes from South Korea.

        At the end of the day, South Korea is just about the only country in Asia other than Japan that shares both the ‘ideas of market economy,’ and ‘system of democratic politics.’

        From a third person’s point of view, I don’t think it would be easy for Japan to simply break away from the tripod U.S.-Japan- South Korea alliance any time soon.

  • I see, but say “Not actually”, to Mr.Ito, as he might have known it well.
    It’s US to give Japanese PM a permission around certain things to do, including the shrine worshipping, he doesn’t do it by his own in the first place.
    Wish Obama’s not going to give him a permission at this time.
    I never agree with his diplomatic strategy, just want him dismissed soon, otherwise make a mend with neighbors immediately.
    Selling nuclear merchandise to far beyond countries only for aiming ourselves to be “OK”, no way, there’s no such thing “peace” or “happiness” just concerned with ourselves, what are we doing if it’s too much similar with our forefathers in 1930, how do you think my co-nationals, are you OK if it seems OK just with us?
    We’re none other than a member of Asia, having Asian neighbors, with no choice of removal, what is it for us to hesitate from getting along?
    There’re always special respect and love required in Asian diplomacy, quite different from one what Western people usually do, there’s nothing to do without respect and love.
    We’re going to bring them onto neighbors even when we’re not so welcomed, since there’s no way for us but doing it by ourselves, it should be us to bring it first, that’s what we have to do with Asian neighbors.

  • I’m going to tell our PM this time, that how it has distance from his kind of definition of “aggression” or “invasion”, to the incidents what happened back then, though which was actually spoken to be as “invasion” in Japanese on Diet, by introducing what my friend (compatriot) told me recently, as below
    According to my uncle’s story which told me before, who served back then with Sino-Japanese War, as long as former Japanese Military was not going to supply food to the front line, they had to plunder it by assaulting Chinese local village.
    When it was going to happen, they put the farmers in one certain house together, piled up brushwood around the house, then set the fire, eventually, farmers ran out of the house getting badly burned and wounded, died in suffer.
    They took not only food, but also any of fortune whatever they found, after killing people.
    Once they made fried food when they found some oil, then all of the platoon has got poisond and suffered, since the oil was just for anti-water painting use made of paulownia, not for eat.
    There almost seemed to be plunders and killings for civilians they engaged in, not many battles to happen while they thieved everything as well as something paulownia oil.
    They did report up their civilian killings as to be ones with Beniheis, as long as the Military formally banned to kill a civilian.
    There’s no actual report of civilian killing bringing upward, since which papers had been submitted with no detail regarding such atrocities.
    The barren arguement which recent Japanese militarists presenting, alleging that former Japanese Military was never wrong, is only composed of such forged reports, having no detail of actual evil demeanors which former Japanese Military commited.
    There’s more to tell, my Chinese friend who’s already known about everything what happened in China during the war, told me like this after he read it,
    “There is no way that Japan can ignore neighbors. For the same reason there is no way that neighbors can ignore Japan. We are all in the same boat.”
    He still says we’re all in the same boat, even he knows that Japan has been ignoring many promises which made between China, he always can what Chinese people are supposed to.
    I think there’s no rational reason, or way for us getting hostile with such a big hearted neighbor, big hearted as same as 40 years ago.

  • Peter Nozawa Thurwachter

    Russia needs Japanese technology to extract gas and oil from Siberia and the surrounding seas.

  • Jay

    I don’t think the issue of being clear with the definition of ‘invasion’ and ‘aggression’ has anything to do with disgracing a certain country.

    I am a Korean who grew up in Europe and schooled in the U.S. – a lot of my friends are Japanese or Japanese American and I enjoy the Japanese culture.

    At the end of the day, I wholeheartedly agree that Japanese have the right to be proud of their culture and history; nobody can tell them that their ancestors were a disgrace.

    However, what happened was what happened, you can’t change the past. It is true the Japanese drove into Korea, colonized and exploited the nation, practically using Korea as a supply depot while sending in troops to continental China.

    If that is not called invasion, what else could be called as invasion?

    I know some young Japanese with twisted mind would claim it was the Japanese who civilized and modernized poor Asian countries, but the counter argument would be, if the Asian countries were so well modernized, why were countries like Korea or China left as the most suffering places after their liberation?

    No matter what is said, nothing on this Earth will make me hate somebody just because he/she is Japanese. I am going to continuously enjoy my vacations in Japan, respect my Japanese friends and enjoy hanging out with my Japanese friends.

    However, I think it’s a serious time in Japanese history right now to make sure that the Japanese public make a wise decision in selecting their political leaders; a leader with twisted historical view will not bring a bright future and nobody can change the past no matter what. Recognizing Japanese in the past as aggressors and stating that Japan colonized and exploited Korea is a cold-hearted fact that won’t change. Talking about those facts has nothing to do with disgracing Japan – it’s about being aware of the dangers of mindless thoughts.

    Continuously avoiding the issues regarding history will only put a country in more danger.