Will the Yasukuni Visit Set the Tone for Abe’s Policy Agenda for 2014?
By William Brooks
Senior Fellow APP, Adjunct Professor, Johns Hopkins, SAIS
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's December 26th appearance at the Yasukuni Shrine was a simple personal decision to make good on a campaign promise. His well-thought out official visit to pay homage to Imperial Japan’s war dead that include 14 Class-A war criminals is part of Abe’s greater strategy to assert Japan’s independence and strength. The steely determination of the Shrine visit sets the tone for Japan’s foreign policy in the year ahead.
Abe, specifically, wants to push back at China and South Korea, which he believes have unnecessarily brow-beaten Japan over territorial, historical, and other bilateral issues. He feels that he had nothing to lose with this “symbolic slap.” And he appears to have the agreement of most of the Japanese people.
Worth the risk
For the Abe Administration, the collateral damage, at least diplomatically, of being chided by a “disappointed” United States was a small price to pay. It was a calculated risk that could easily explained to an ally otherwise satisfied with the current state of bilateral relations. After all, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had paid homage at the war shrine many times during his 2001-2006 tenure without a word of approbation from Washington.
This time, Abe probably felt that Washington would factor in Japan’s cooperative posture in the Alliance, particularly toward China’s increasingly aggressive maritime posture in the region. Moreover, Abe’s recent efforts to resolve the Futenma reversion issue, generally to the U.S.’ satisfaction, and Japan’s serious negotiations with the U.S. to overcome obstacles for it to join the TPP, also can be seen by Tokyo as capital well-invested in the bilateral relationship that could be used to transcend such bumps in the road as the trip to Yasukuni.
Yasukuni Visit Well Timed
The Yasukuni visit occurred on the anniversary of Prime Minister Abe’s first year in office. He had oft-stated his regret that he was never able to pay homage at the shrine during his first time in office (2006-2007). Abe reportedly told his aides that he intended to visit Yasukuni before the end of 2013, and he has shown that he keeps his word.
He chose his time wisely, December 26, just when the Diet was out of session and the country was about to go on extended New Year’s holiday. He gambled, correctly, that a nation on vacation was not likely to pay as much attention. Aside from editorial protests in the media, the Japanese public indeed continues to pay more attention to economic issues and has even given the Abe Cabinet a bump in popularity in Sankei’s most recent poll – even though a majority did not approve Abe’s going to Yasukuni.
Abe may also have calculated that since Japan’s relations with China and South Korea before the Yasukuni visit were so icy, a Yasukuni visit would only raise the protest decibel a level or two. Indeed, even without the Shrine visit, there was little or no chance of summit meetings with either country any time soon, no matter how many diplomatic approaches the Abe administration might make.
Nor was there any incentive for Tokyo to accede to Beijing and Seoul’s prerequisite demands – amounting to unacceptable concessions on the historical or territorial issues – to achieve a summit meeting. Abe’s tough stance also benefited from a furious anti-China and anti-Korea campaigns being waged in the popular media, including daily front-page bashing articles in the well-read sports daily Yukan Fuji, and similar anti-Japan campaigns going on in China and South Korea. The vitriolic atmosphere has helped shape sharply negative opinions in Japan toward the two countries – as seen even in government and private opinion polls.
A game plan
Abe’s game plan most likely is to make it so that Yasukuni visits by prime ministers and cabinet members become so common place that even the sharpest critics of such will have no choice, but to accept them as a fait accompli. There is no sign at all of any attempt to remove the cause of the controversy, the enshrined Class A war criminals, by removing their names from Yasukuni’s list, or of establishing a secularized memorial for the war dead. Abe may assume that protests over his paying homage at the Shrine will become pro forma, allowing the mainstream aspects of at least economic relations with China and South Korea to remain on track.
Indeed, even on the business side, especially with China, there are few signs of a slowdown in bilateral trade and investment transactions, despite the grumblings of Japan’s business associations. Things can change, but so far, the levels of business activity with China and South Korea apparently have not noticeably changed.
Abe is riding high
As for 2014, with the economy steadily recovering, the Abe Administration has been reaping the political benefits. The latest polls that have found the Cabinet’s popularity again rising to over 50 percent. The Japanese public remain upset over repeated Chinese military intrusions into Japanese waters, and China's newly declared air identification defense zone (ADIZ) for areas covering the East China Sea. As a result, Abe gets high public marks for his tough responses, including boosting defenses not only around the disputed Senkakus but other remote islands to the south.
Moreover, the public has been impressed with Abe’s strategic foreign policy. The Prime Minister has embarked on a massive diplomatic effort to blunt in effect China’s influence in Asia and other regions, visiting 25 countries in his first year, including all 10 ASEAN nations, and with Middle East and African visits now scheduled for early 2014. He has also amassed an amazing 150 summit conferences by telephone with world leaders in 2013.
In addition, as seen with the passage of the controversial secrets protection act last fall, Abe benefits from an opposition camp that is divided ideologically and fragmented functionally. There is no force left in the Diet that can stop dubious laws from being enacted. The LDP’s coalition partner, the New Komeito, also seems unable to put a brake on Abe’s nationalist agenda. Although the party is cautious about legitimizing the use of collective self-defense and revising the Constitution, they have not been able to stop their acceptance. Abe, thus, goes into 2014 with considerable momentum for implementing key parts of his policy agenda.
But there may unexpected trouble in 2014
It is possible that there will be a public backlash from Abe’s risky decisions to raise the consumption tax to 10% in April and to restart as many idle nuclear power plants as possible this year. Both moves are still highly controversial and could seriously affect the mood of the country.
Another decision that could turn south is Abe’s intention to join TPP by working out an arrangement for Japan to maintain a certain amount of tariff protection for such sensitive agricultural items as rice and sugar. Talks centered on the U.S. wrap up soon, with no sign that the stalemate over exceptions to the zero-tariff rule will be broken. If Japan caves in and accepts U.S. demands for no exceptions, Japan’s agricultural lobby, led by the powerful agricultural cooperative association JA, will launch a massive negative campaign. JA is already upset that the Abe Administration’s new agricultural reforms designed to increase rice supply and lower prices are eroding its monopoly interests in the agricultural sector. TPP could make or break the Abe government if mishandled.
On the security side, Abe is counting on continued strong support from the U.S. for his defense agenda in 2014. He expects China’s increasingly provocative actions to help keep the U.S. actively committed to region, and domestic opinion to continue to back his defense moves centered on the southern islands. He knows that the U.S., weakened by two long wars – Iraq and Afghanistan – and still preoccupied in the Middle East, needs time to heal itself at home and rebuild the home front.
The U.S.’s rebalancing to Asia, as a result, has a strategic expectation that the U.S. must rely now even more on its allies – especially Japan – to do more. The U.S. needs Japan, Abe believes, to defend itself and to help deal with a rising China so that it does not become a real military threat. In other words, Japan is especially important to the U.S. which cannot bear the load of Asian security all by itself.
Abe’s military plans have certainly won over Washington, but there is a diplomatic component to security that remains unfulfilled. Here is where the Abe Administration could run aground. He has yet to make good-faith efforts to repair severely damaged political relations with China and South Korea.
Washington has already asked Tokyo to do more than just squabble. The Abe Administration has a heady sense of self-confidence from a successful first year. It believes its assertive nationalism is working. The test of Japan’s diplomacy, however, will be Abe’s ability to refocus on serious efforts of reconciliation with those countries on historically sensitive issues. If it sees only Pyrrhic victories like visiting shrines and saying “no” that only further irritate its neighbors, the damage will be a contagion spreading to the U.S.-Japan relationship. U.S. “disappointment” with Japan may give way to dismay and even distrust of its ally.