Was the US Truly Opposed to Abe’s Yasukuni Visit?

At 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 26, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine in a move that both marked the one-year anniversary of his administration and drew strong condemnation from neighboring mainland China, South Korea and the Republic of China [Taiwan], with the U.S. expressing its “disappointment.” But the question is, was the U.S. truly against Abe’s visit?

Examination of various signs points to not a spur-of-the-moment decision or impromptu event, but pre-calculated action. This can be seen from the following day’s announcement of significant progress made toward plans to relocate the U.S. air base at Futenma.

U.S. Capable of Stopping Abe, yet Did Not

When the news of Abe’s visit broke at approximately 9:00 a.m., Abe had already placed white chrysanthemums at the shrine in his official capacity as prime minister — in full, the “minister who presides over the cabinet.” Several observers have pointed to this being Abe “intentionally creating news.” At that time, the U.S. still had over an hour to intercede.

If the U.S. were truly against the visit, it would not have only gone through diplomatic channels to seek Abe’s self-restraint; instead, it would have initiated national security protocols and made the request through National Security Adviser Susan Rice or Secretary of State John Kerry. It certainly would not have merely voiced its “disappointment.”

Furthermore, as to the matter of the visit itself, the U.S. had no justifiable reason to oppose it. Was Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine really more egregious than the U.S. giving tacit consent for Japan to “nationalize” the Diaoyu Islands, raising no opposition to Japan viewing mainland China as a potential enemy, and encouraging Japan to revise its defense guidelines?

Since Japan’s “nationalization” of Diaoyu in Sept. 2012, has the U.S. really been as neutral as purported? Washington has consistently claimed that it holds no position on Diaoyu, but at the same time, it has also said that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty applies to the islands. Quite clearly, from the standpoint of mainland China and many other nations, one would be hard pressed to call the U.S. position neutral. Despite U.S. hopes that Japan will dial it down and exercise self-restraint on the Diaoyu issue, or its requests for Tokyo to open dialogue with Beijing and seek a path to resolution, Washington’s actions in every respect have demonstrated a lack of adherence to its principles and the loss of the strategic high ground.

To better understand the views of mainland Chinese on how Abe’s visit affects other issues between China and Japan, on Dec. 27, the mainland’s Global Times surveyed 1,077 people across seven cities. The results found that 46.5 percent of respondents were “very angry,” while 75.7 percent believed that the move would push Japan’s relations with China, South Korea and other neighbors to new lows. Regarding the question of what measures China should adopt to oppose Japan, a 74.6 percent majority favored China “maintaining a tough stance toward Japan on Diaoyu and other controversial issues,” and 67.7 percent were in support of sanctions targeting Japanese companies providing financial support to the Yasukuni Shrine.

Can Abe’s decision to visit to Yasukuni while still in office really engender any positive feeling among Chinese toward Japan? According to a popular survey conducted in June and July by the Genron NPO of Japan and the mainland’s official English-language paper, China Daily, that polled 1,000 Japanese and 1,540 mainland Chinese of all ages, as many as 90 percent of respondents had “unfavorable” or “relatively unfavorable” impressions of the other country. Why do both sides have such poor impressions of the other? When listing multiple factors, respondents most often replied “because the issue of Diaoyu has led to antagonism between the two countries,” with 53 percent of Japanese and 78 percent of mainland Chinese raising the issue; second highest was the discrepancies in “historical perspectives” between the countries.

In addition to this, mainland China and North Korea’s placement in the same category of entities constituting threats toward Japan’s national security within Abe’s security council framework has drawn significant attention, as it suggests that Japan already views mainland China as a potential enemy. The target of provisions within Japan’s new defense plans for “launching pre-emptive strikes as necessary against imminent attack” is also abundantly clear. Without strong support from the U.S., would Japan have dared to do this?

The Base at Futenma Is the Key

More important than Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine is that Japan’s Diet has established a national security council and passed a “Special Secret Protection Bill.” The move by Abe comes as a response to the strong wishes of the U.S. government; by fulfilling U.S. requests for information security, Japan’s newly-established intelligence unit will be able to work even more closely with the U.S. and share intelligence for effectively responding to the burgeoning military strength of mainland China. Washington also expressed its support of this in a joint U.S.-Japanese statement released during the “two-plus-two” meeting.

The day after Abe visited Yasukuni, enormous strides were taken in plans for relocating the Futenma air base, plans that had been previously delayed for 17 years. One can be sure that this was the primary reason for Abe’s confidence that his visit to Yasukuni would not alter the security alliance between the U.S. and Japan.

The author is a professor at Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of American Studies.

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