For almost exactly a year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saw smooth sailing on diplomacy, visiting 25 countries, meeting leaders from more than 110 countries and making top-level sales campaigns overseas to boost the stagnant domestic economy while avoiding revisions to Japan’s official apologies for World War II.
But he flushed his year-long effort down the drain with his surprising visit to contentious Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26, the first anniversary of his Cabinet’s inauguration in 2012. Criticism poured in from China and South Korea as expected, but also from the United States, which issued an unprecedented statement saying Washington was “disappointed” with Abe’s visit to the war-linked shrine.
Although the globe-trotting Abe plans to visit the Middle East, Africa, Switzerland and India in January, experts say 2014 is likely going to be a daunting year for him.
Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, which enshrines millions of Japan’s war dead, including several convicted Class-A criminals, damaged relations with Beijing, Seoul and Washington, the experts say. As the international community casts a dubious eye on Abe and his agenda, the government’s top priority is damage control with the United States.
“What’s done is done. The Abe administration has no choice but to go on with the given situation,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation think tank. “What Japan needs to work on in 2014 is regaining the trust of the U.S., to mend the damage (the Yasukuni visit) has caused to bilateral ties.”
Abe has centered his diplomacy on Japan’s security ties with the United States to keep China’s growing military and economic might in check and to deal with the nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.
Mending the damage from Yasukuni won’t be easy. Unlike Junichiro Koizumi, who visited Yasukuni six times during his tenure as prime minister but maintained strong personal ties with U.S. President George W. Bush, Abe has no such relationship with President Barack Obama, who is known for his businesslike approach to diplomacy with other world leaders.
With Obama slated to make a trip to Asia in the spring, including Japan, the Abe administration will face increasing pressure to show him that progress has been made on the long-stalled 1996 plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa.
Although the long-running drama has been a constant irritant for Washington, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima last month finally approved the landfill work needed to build the replacement base further north in Nago so the Futenma base can be removed from a densely populated area in the city of Ginowan.
But difficult challenges await. Local opposition to keeping the base in Okinawa remains strong, fueled by lingering memories of the fierce ground battle that took place there in the closing days of World War II and the cold way the prefecture was treated for decades after.
One of those challenges will be the Nago mayoral election on Jan. 19., which pits incumbent Susumu Inamine, who opposes the relocation plan, against Bunshin Suematsu, a member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party who has been promoting the plan for its huge economic benefits. A win for Inamine might energize local opposition to the bilateral plan.
Another major item on the agenda this year is how to cope with an increasingly assertive China.
“Relations with China will be more difficult (given the visit to Yasukuni),” Watanabe said.
Tokyo hasn’t been able to arrange a summit with China’s top leaders for more than a year, and little progress has been seen in the dispute over the Senkaku Islands, which have been administered by Japan for decades but were more recently claimed by China and Taiwan.
Bilateral ties with Beijing went into a tailspin in September 2012 when the central government purchased three of the islets in the East China Sea from a Saitama businessman, effectively nationalizing the uninhabited chain, to prevent them from being bought by the hawkish Shintaro Ishihara, who was then governor of Tokyo.
Since then, the waters surrounding the Senkaku islets, which China calls Diayou and Taiwan calls Tiaoyutai, have become a potential flash point, with Beijing incessantly sending government ships to the area and intruding into Japanese waters from time to time.
Beijing’s abrupt declaration in November of a new air defense identification zone over the Senkakus sparked even more international concern, especially after it demanded that all airlines entering the zone notify it ahead of time or face “defensive emergency measures” by its military.
Abe’s visit to Yasukuni is likely to make it more difficult for the two to come to a compromise over the territorial dispute.
Shin Kawashima, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo who specializes in Asian diplomatic history, said Japan and China must establish a bilateral framework to regularly discuss ways to prevent an accidental maritime clash. Japan has established such a framework with Russia.
“An accident could turn into a war,” he said. ” I believe (the issue) is likely to continue for some decades to come. Japan and China have no choice but to continue with what they are doing now while maintaining such a framework to prevent (a clash),” Kawashima said.
Japan’s top leaders are trying to separate the political issues from economic matters when it comes to China, now its top trading partner. But the Yasukuni visit is likely to dampen business ties once again, experts warned.
Moving on to South Korea, Japan has been under pressure from the United States to mend ties. In recent months, Tokyo and Seoul had been making progress in working-level talks toward a summit between Abe and President Park Geun-hye. But Abe’s stubborn visit to the Shinto shrine is likely to force them to go back to square one.
This month, the South Korean Supreme Court is likely to uphold compensation claims filed against Japanese firms that forced Koreans to work for them during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
“This may make the strained bilateral ties even worse,” Kawashima said.
That will give the United States a trilateral headache, because the help of all three countries is crucial in dealing with bellicose North Korea, experts said.
Japan and South Korea have yet to sign an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, which would allow them to provide logistic supplies to each other during military operations, including humanitarian, peacekeeping or disaster relief missions.
The two also have failed to conclude a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which outlines procedures that would help facilitate the sharing of classified threat information dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and other potential common security challenges.
“Given the instability of North Korea, it’s crucial for Japan and South Korea to beef up their cooperation. Otherwise, no preparations can be made for (potential challenges from) North Korea,” Watanabe said.
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