The controversy over Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine last month has continued to intensify both domestically and internationally.
NHK released the results of its latest opinion poll on Tuesday last week, showing that 38 percent of respondents felt Abe should not visit the shrine, and that 27 percent felt he should, while one-third answered that it was “difficult to say.” There is a divergence on the issue within Japanese society. The Japanese Diet is starting its new session on Friday, and an intense debate over the issue is expected. Internationally, China and South Korea are most strongly opposed to Abe’s visit to the shrine. Compared with South Korea’s old trick of stirring up anti-Japanese sentiment, China’s new trick might even be successful.
This new strategy consisted of Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) talking to his counterparts in Germany, Russia, South Korea, the US and Vietnam, while Chinese Ambassador to the UN Liu Jieyi (劉結一) condemned Abe at the UN, thus attacking Abe on several fronts.
On the other hand, several Chinese ambassadors published opinion articles in their host countries, concentrating their fire power on Abe’s “ghost worship” in order to create support for China’s view across the world.
As of Tuesday, almost 40 Chinese ambassadors had published opinion articles in newspapers in the US, EU, Russia, Australia, Canada, India, Mexico, South Africa and about 30 other countries. The content of the articles was mostly the same: Japan’s increasingly obvious right deviation poses a threat to world peace and Abe’s visit to the shrine, a symbol of the old Japanese militarism, is a great challenge to the post-World War II order.
China’s “one-man show” was a yawn, but then, unhappy with being called “the biggest troublemaker in Asia” by China, the Abe administration answered in kind. Five days after Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming (劉曉明) published an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph portraying Japanese militarism as the dark wizard Voldemort in the Harry Potter series of books, Japanese Ambassador to the UK Keiichi Hayashi also published an article in the same newspaper, entitled “China risks becoming Asia’s Voldemort.”
Later, Hayashi gave an interview with the BBC responding to Liu, defending Abe’s “active pacifism,” while accusing Beijing of causing tensions in the East and South China Seas with its marine strategy, which disregards international convention.
In the ongoing global debate, China is clearly on the attack and Japan is on the defense.
However, it is too early to say that this means that international opinion is coming down on the side of Beijing.
Current Sino-Japanese disputes mainly involve two thorny issues: one, the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands — known as the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in Taiwan; and two, “historical issues.” When it comes to the former issue, no country is willing to take sides at the moment as Taiwan, China and Japan all claim sovereignty over the island group.
As Hayashi asked in the BBC interview, why did China not claim sovereignty over the islands until the 1970s? Some also wonder, if China’s claim to the island group is “not in doubt,” why China does not bring the matter to the International Court of Justice. It is not easy for China to provide convincing answers to these questions, so Japan is not necessarily in a disadvantageous position.
As for the historical issues, China seems to be in a more favorable situation, although it must be handled skillfully or Beijing may spoil it. It may be easier for China to gain international support by focusing on Abe’s “ghost worship” and connecting it to Japan’s political and social “right deviation,” thus emphasizing that his visit to the shrine is a challenge to the post-World War II order. However, if China directly links Abe’s shrine visit or the “historical issues” to a threat to world peace, this may have negative consequences.
Although Japan’s political “right deviation” is becoming increasingly obvious, and the Abe administration is preparing a military buildup, it has not caused any military conflicts. On the contrary, China’s marine police repeatedly patrols the waters within 12 nautical miles (22km) of the Diaoyutai Islands. It established the East China sea air defense identification zone and its Hainan Province has issued new regulations for the management of the South China Sea. Japan has said that these measures are provocative attempts to “change the ‘status quo’ by force or coercion.”
The Japanese claim has been recognized by the Philippines and Vietnam, and the foreign ministers of the US and Australia with some other countries have issued a joint statement in support of the claim.
In addition, if China accuses Japan of posing “a serious threat to global peace,” it will be difficult for Beijing to gain the support of the rest of the world. The mainstream international opinion is that Japan remains a peaceful country, whose peace index is much higher than that of China.
As the battle for global public opinion between China and Japan continues to grow, who will be the ultimate winner in this new Sino-Japanese war? The key to that answer lies in which party can handle the issue more skillfully and with more sophistication.
John Lim is an associate research fellow in the Institute of Modern History at Academia Sinica.
Translated by Eddy Chang