In a key announcement on Friday last week, Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima agreed to the relocation of the US military base at Futenma to nearby Henoko. The move, which comes after many years of negotiations between Washington, Tokyo and the Okinawan authorities, has been hailed as a “critical milestone” by US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
The development is valuable to the US administration as it provides a key missing piece in its pivot to Asia-Pacific: a replacement base for Futenma, which is scheduled to close within a decade. Japan and other allies are crucial to the success of this US strategy, both by enhancing the country’s military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, and by increasing burden-sharing of the costs of a US-led security order in the region.
Simultaneously, the decision represents a political win for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as it underpins the country’s US alliance at a moment of major tension in Asia.
Abe met personally with Nakaima only on Wednesday last week to discuss the base decision, which will draw considerable opposition from people in Okinawa for whom continued US military presence is already controversial.
The timing of Nakaima’s announcement seems to have been choreographed with Abe, especially coming just 24 hours after the prime minister’s controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.
The shrine, where 14 high-ranking military leaders convicted as war criminals are honored along with around 2.5 million other men, women and children who died in wars, is perceived by many domestic and foreign critics as symbolic of Japan’s wartime excesses.
Abe’s visit, the first by any sitting Japanese prime minister for seven years, predictably drew foreign criticism, though Abe depicted it as an anti-war gesture intended not to hurt feelings in neighboring countries.
It particularly infuriated Beijing and Seoul, which have repeatedly asserted that Tokyo has done too little to atone for its wartime abuses.
The US administration also expressed “disappointment” after previous proclamations from US officials that visits to Yasukuni by senior Japanese politicians should be avoided.
Despite this relatively mild criticism, there is no disguising Washington’s frustration at the prime minister’s trip, especially in the context of pre-existing, major regional stress.
Knowing this would be the case, it appears likely that Abe calculated that the base decision would at least partially blunt Washington’s reprimand and give him the political space to make the visit. For the prime minister, this was an important trip on the one year anniversary of his election, which will have pleased many Japanese nationalists, a vital political constituency for him.
This underlines the importance to Abe’s conservative agenda of emphasizing Japanese pride in its past, of which his shrine visit is a part. And, relatedly, he also wishes to overturn the remaining legal and political underpinning of the country’s post-war pacifist security identity, so that it can become more actively engaged internationally.
In the broader context of current tensions in Asia, it is also possible that Abe anticipated there was little to lose, diplomatically, by making the visit now, especially with Beijing having recently made provocations toward Tokyo. From this calculus, the marginal diplomatic costs of the shrine trip are low with bilateral relations with China (and, to a lesser extent, South Korea) already in a deep freeze.
Nonetheless, there is real danger that the episode will make the regional atmosphere even more unpredictable. Already, Seoul has canceled a series of proposed bilateral defence and military exchange programs with Tokyo, while Beijing has strongly condemned the trip and is under pressure to retaliate.
Diplomatic temperature is so high at the moment is, in large part, due to the succession of incidents in recent weeks, including Abe’s visit to Yasukuni; China’s unilateral declaration of an air “self-defense identification zone” and a counter-move from South Korea; China’s refusal to participate in a UN arbitration process over a territorial conflict with the Philippines; and the near-miss of a Chinese naval vessel and a US warship in the South China Sea.
These developments come in a context of significant change in the region, including a once-in-a-generation transition of leadership in Beijing; Abe’s election; and the US’ Asia pivot. In this fluid environment, the geopolitical landscape is shifting as all countries maneuver for advantage.
A clear danger, at this heated moment, is therefore serious misjudgement by one or more parties. And this point was emphasized by Hagel on Dec. 19 following the China-US near-collision at sea: the most serious bilateral encounter in the South China Sea for several years.
The US defence secretary accused Beijing of acting in a “very incendiary [way] that could be a trigger or a spark that could set off some eventual miscalculation.”
While China claims that its vessel was conducting “normal patrols” and adhered to proper and “strict protocol,” Hagel asserts it cut in front of the US ship.
With numerous potential flashpoints this year, key external parties, including the EU, are understandably urging calm and restraint on all sides. Unless this caution is heeded, there is a growing possibility of an incident triggering an explosive further escalation of tension.
Andrew Hammond was formerly a geopolitical analyst for Oxford Analytica. He was also a special adviser in former British prime minister Tony Blair’s government.