SINGAPORE – There are many reasons to admire modern day Japan. There are also more than a few reasons to wish well for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His efforts to resuscitate its economy with “Abenomics” has not yet hit the target, but the country is more confident today than it has been for too long.
Now Abe has made history with his speech to the special joint session of the U.S. Congress — the first Japanese prime minister to have this honor. He expressed remorse for World War II and touched on issues sensitive to Americans including Pearl Harbor while emphasizing his commitment, going forward, to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance. His emphasis on the common values shared by the two countries — “the rule of law, democracy, and freedom” — went down well with most Americans.
But not for some in Asia. While Abe expressed “remorse,” China and South Korea have quickly and strongly criticized the refusal to acknowledge and directly apologize for the atrocities committed by the Japanese during WWII.
In truth, what was said was better than some feared. Not long before speaking in the U.S., Abe sent a ritual offering to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, while over 100 members of the Diet also visited in person. There have been bouts of “Abenesia” that have downplayed Japan’s WWII atrocities and characterize the conservative, right-wing thinking that many believe reflect the Abe government’s leaning.
There was even some talk that Abe would retreat from the 1995 stance by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. In this context, there is relief that he did not. But just maintaining that position may not be enough.
This year will witness many WWII anniversaries and related events, including Beijing’s celebratory military parade. Others will put forward their own and very different versions of history to which Japan will need to respond.
The need is also driven by Abe’s ambitions to build up Japan’s political and security role — also emphasized in his U.S. speech. Tokyo can try to dress this up as self-defense and support for America, but many still see it as being aimed at heading off China’s growing strength.
Southeast Asians particularly will need to watch developments. Despite many parts of the region having been occupied in WWII, there has been a pragmatic reticence in the region since the Fukuda Doctrine of the late 1970s unleashed a wave of investment. Singapore, for instance, serves as headquarters for major Japanese corporations and has a bilateral economic partnership agreement with Japan.
Singapore also warmly welcomed Abe on several occasions, including at the state funeral of our founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
This should not be taken for granted. Southeast Asians will have to watch that Abe’s expanding view of Japan’s role in security does not add to the tensions.
Tokyo and Beijing remain at loggerheads over territorial claims to rocks and islands. The two leaders have had only limited contact at the sidelines of larger, multilateral meetings. Moreover, Abe has pledged support to the Philippines and Vietnam over their conflicting maritime claims with China.
When Tokyo pushes further into the region, points of contact and potential conflict with Beijing will multiply and broaden. Those with their own differences with Beijing may welcome this but others looking at Asia’s overall stability must watch with concern. Even if no military conflict erupts, the underlying risk is that Beijing and Tokyo will seek to pull member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations into different orbits, and this will divide the group.
Competition is already evident in the economic sphere. Once China became Asia’s largest economy, many were looking past Japan, reckoning that its aging demography would see it fall further behind. But the introduction of Abenomics has reminded Asians that Japan can still lend support with aid and trade. Major Japanese corporations are also resurgent investors, offering a strong combination of know-how, technology and finance.
This economic engagement has strategic dimensions, as Abe reminded his American hosts in pushing for a completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
China, despite it own challenges, has stepped up its game too. President Xi Jinping’s big ideas like the land and maritime Silk Roads are being backed up with pledges for billions through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to help friends.
Others in Asia would rather not have to choose between China and Japan. But a modus vivendi has yet to be found to accommodate both a rising China and a resurgent Japan. The current Abenesia is as such not only a question about the past but about the region’s future.
Those who wish Japan well — and I count myself among them — should not only wish for Abenomics to restart its economy. Abe is likely to complete his full term and therefore be the longest serving Japanese leader in many years. His ambition to increase the country’s role abroad must be matched by efforts to increase trust and acceptance by other Asians.
For this, an apology that is accepted by its neighbors is needed and go beyond what was said for American consumption. If Japan can really say sorry — especially a Japan with a revived confidence and a strong, conservative leader such as Abe — this will help the entire region.
Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
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