Kazuhiko Togo, writing in the East Asia Forum, noted that PM Abe had chosen to visit Yasukuni at a time when tensions with China were already high over issues concerning the Senkaku Islands, and that any move to ratchet up the ante in such an atmosphere could have dangerous consequences. For their part the Chinese flatly condemned the visit, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry stating that the visit was an attempt to whitewash history and overturn the outcome of WWII, while South Korea was equally vehement in its criticism, claiming that the visit was a consequence of Abe’s ‘wrong perception of history’ and that it would destabilise the region.
Of even greater significance (at least as far as Japan was concerned) was the rebuke the visit earned from the US, with the US Embassy in Tokyo issuing a statement expressing US ‘disappointment’ in Abe’s decision to visit the shrine. In caged diplomatic speak, this was tantamount to a direct criticism of Abe, and the Japanese media certainly reacted to it in this way. As Prof. Togo explained, the US had been urging Japan not to engage in any provocative behaviour that might upset China, hence this move by Abe would cause the US to reconsider its position vis-à-vis cooperation with Japan. As the US had spent considerable time trying to get Japan to work in greater unison with other regional partners such as South Korea, for PM Abe to suddenly throw a diplomatic spanner into the works was not appreciated by Washington.
As Sheila Smith outlined in her blog post following the visit, Abe’s actions would frustrate US policymakers and give rise to concerns that Abe might be pursuing a different security agenda to that which was previously welcomed by Washington. Given such concerns, the US might hold back on further alliance reforms until it better understands Abe’s intentions. With the US keen to make progress on the Futenma base relocation plan, Abe’s role in securing Okinawan consent for the move was greatly appreciated in Washington, yet this same move may have given Abe the confidence to indulge in an agenda which completely negated Abe’s previous promise that his government would not escalate tensions.
As to why Abe decided to visit Yasukuni, pundits have given various reasons for this in addition to Abe’s own official line. One theory stated that as Abe has suffered a hit in popularity because of his introduction of the NSA and Secrecy Protection Bill, he was attempting to rally support among the more conservative, right-wing members of the electorate who expected Abe to make such a visit (although whether this would secure Abe any greater level of support is debatable, considering that they would already approve of his legislative agenda). Another theory states that as Japan’s relationship with China and South Korea is already poor, Abe would have nothing to lose by going ahead with his visit. In his statement PM Abe explicitly stated that he had no intention of ‘hurting the feelings of the Chinese and South Korean people’ by his visit, although he was fully aware of how it would be perceived in both of those countries.
To engage in an act with full knowledge of its likely consequences makes PM Abe’s benign claim somewhat dubious. A bigger question might be why Abe chose Yasukuni Shrine to make a pledge to peace and the renunciation of war at all, given the symbolism of the shrine and its association with militarism. A far more appropriate venue would have been Okinawa while pledging financial assistance to the Nakaima government – it would have interpreted as a more genuine act of contrition, and would have given Abe’s words more substance, at least as far as an international audience was concerned.
Hugh White waded into the discussion on Monday by stating that perhaps Abe was sending a signal to both Beijing and Washington, reminding them that he was free to act as he wishes, while also signalling a possible move by Japan to distance itself from the US and pursue an independent path against China, given the US’s reluctance to fully commit itself to Japan’s defence (or the perception that it is less committed to Japan). In White’s view, Japan may be seeking to remove itself from its post-war reliance on the US, as the US cannot guarantee Japan’s security in the face of belligerence from China. Hence by using the Yasukuni Shrine visit as a pretext, Abe has calculated that by upping the ante with China, he can force the US to reveal whether it is committed to the alliance or whether Japan would be better served by a Japan-only defence policy founded on a right to collective self-defence.
Hence questions regarding Abe’s motives have spawned a myriad of theories, ranging from personal beliefs to strategic calculations. In all likelihood each of these theories has validity, although the idea that Abe would pursue a security policy at odds with US strategic thinking is harder to accept unless one believes that Abe harbours an ambition to reduce or remove US influence over Japan. If so, then Abe’s statements in the past reaffirming the importance of the US to Japan ring hollow, while simultaneously leaving Japan surrounded by hostile nations and devoid of strong support from its principal ally (and the added support this brings from other regional partners).
If this is indeed what Abe intended by his visit, then it suggests that Abe is extremely confident in his ability to build relations with regional partners, and that he calculated that the temporary negative impact of the shrine visit on Japan’s international relations was worth the ‘patriotic’ symbolism designed to appeal to a domestic audience. If Japan can be seen to act on its own accord, then perhaps it might be able to pursue an agenda that differentiates it from the US and gives it greater leverage against China. Abe will need to work on the charm then, given that other regional partners will need reassurance that Japan’s push for security autonomy isn’t part of some broader agenda.
Such speculation doesn’t seem plausible, however, given the emphasis Abe has placed on ties with the US, and the pre-existing ties that exist between Japanese institutions and their US counterparts. Abe has repeatedly included the US in a majority of his foreign policy statements, remarking on the importance of the US to Japan and how regional stability depends on the US-Japan alliance. If Abe has decided to scale back that support, he certainly hasn’t given any indication to that end – quite the opposite in fact. Nevertheless the repercussions of the visit have switched focus back onto Abe, which may have been an additional factor in his decision to visit the shrine. Questions on whether Abe’s decision was in fact the right one for Japan at present will have to wait until international diplomatic machines crank up for another year of summits and symposia, and how Abe is met by his regional counterparts.