When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine last month, Chinese leaders predictably condemned his decision to honor those behind “the war of aggression against China.” However, Abe was also sending a message to Japan’s main ally and defender, the US.
Faced with US President Barack Obama’s reluctance to challenge China’s muscle-flexing and territorial ambitions in Asia — reflected in Japan’s recent split with the US over China’s new air defense identification zone — an increasingly desperate Abe was compelled to let both countries know that restraint cannot be one-sided.
For China and South Korea, the Yasukuni Shrine’s inclusion of 14 Class A war criminals who were executed after World War II has made it a potent symbol of Japan’s prewar militarism, and Abe had long refrained from visiting it — including during his previous stint as prime minister. He may well have maintained that stance had China not established the air defense identification zone, which set an ominous new precedent by usurping international airspace over the East China Sea, including areas that China does not control. (Abe does not appear to have considered the possibility that his pilgrimage to Yasukuni might end up helping China by deepening South Korea’s antagonism toward Japan.)
The Obama administration had been pressing Abe not to aggravate regional tensions by visiting Yasukuni — an entreaty reiterated by US Vice President Joe Biden during a recent stopover in Tokyo on his way to Beijing.
Biden’s tour deepened Japan’s security concerns because it highlighted the US’ focus on balancing its relationships in East Asia, even if that means tolerating an expansionist China as the strategic equivalent of an allied Japan.
Instead of postponing Biden’s trip to Beijing to demonstrate disapproval of China’s new air defense identification zone, the US advised its commercial airlines to respect it, whereas Japan asked its carriers to ignore China’s demand that they file their flight plans through the zone in advance. By calling for restraint, the US stoked Japanese anxiety, without winning any concessions from China.
Now, the widening rift between the US and Japan has become starkly apparent. Abe feels let down by Obama’s decision not to take a firm stand on the air defense identification zone — the latest in a series of aggressive moves by China to upend the “status quo” in the East China Sea. For its part, the US government openly — and uncharacteristically — criticized Abe’s Yasukuni visit, with its embassy in Japan releasing a statement saying that the US was “disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.”
Such recriminations do not mean that the US-Japan alliance — the bedrock of the US’ forward military deployment in Asia — is in immediate jeopardy. Japan remains a model ally that hosts a large US troop presence, even paying for the upkeep of US forces on its soil. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni came only a day after he completed a long-elusive, US-backed bilateral deal to relocate the US airbase in Okinawa to a less populous area of the island. And he supports Japan’s entry into the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, an emerging regional trading bloc that will exclude China.
Nonetheless, a psychological schism between the Abe and Obama administrations has gradually developed. While the US frets about Abe’s nationalistic stance vis-a-vis China and South Korea, Japanese officials have stopped trying to conceal their uneasiness over Obama’s effort to strike a balance between its alliance commitments and its desire for Sino-American ties. Biden spent more than twice as much time in discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) as he did with Abe.