Last November, I wrote a blog entitled What Does the Fox Say? that outlined once-hesitant Japan’s efforts to raise its stature abroad. Since then, those efforts have continued at a relentless pace. Following a multi-country tour through Southeast Asia after the APEC summit, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe capped off his regional efforts with an ASEAN-Japan summit in Tokyo. Without missing a beat, he then took Japan’s active diplomacy beyond Asia and has taken steps at home to better orchestrate its implementation.
During a well-publicized tour through Africa two weeks ago, Abe visited Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Mozambique. But wherever he went, he could not escape Chinese criticism of Japan’s Second World War history. China’s representative to the African Union went as far as holding a press conference to denounce Abe as “the biggest troublemaker in Asia,” while holding up old photographs of Chinese civilians that he said were massacred by Japanese troops. Chinese ambassadors around the world made sure that that message was pressed home. In so doing, China has attempted to respond to Japan’s diplomatic campaign with one of its own.
Paying little heed to China’s rebukes, Abe has forged ahead. In a demonstration of its strategic engagement in Asia, Tokyo made a substantial contribution to the reconstruction efforts in the Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan devastated that country’s central islands last year. Through the Japan International Cooperation Agency, it signed an agreement with Manila to establish a Post-Disaster Stand-by Loan worth about $500 million. For those in the Philippines, it further distanced Japan’s response to the disaster from China’s meager one.
Still, Japan’s foreign policy coordination has historically been challenging to do. But in late November, Abe pushed through the Diet a bill that established Japan’s National Security Council (NSC), modeled on similar ones in the U.S. and Europe, to improve that coordination. (China created its own at about the same time.) And so, one would assume that going forward, Japan’s foreign policy setting and execution will work more smoothly.
But there are still kinks left to work out. A month after its NSC was formed, Japan appeared to stumble when Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine without first explaining to Japan’s neighbors and allies the reasons for his visit. The shrine commemorates all of Japan’s war dead, including—as the Chinese are quick to remind—fourteen “Class A” war criminals from the Second World War. Abe’s visit drew predictable condemnation from China (and South Korea). But it also prompted the United States to express its “disappointment” over the visit, which China was all too happy to re-broadcast. Only afterwards did Abe offer an explanation of his intent “to pay his respects and pray for the souls of the war dead and renew the pledge that Japan shall never again wage war.” Though the practical damage from his visit was limited, it did appear to take some wind out of Japan’s diplomatic sails.
Is Japan trying to, in the words of China’s ambassador to the United States, “change the verdict” of the Second World War or was Abe using his visit to make it clear that Japan was willing to stand firm, even on contentious issues? No doubt, there are a few in Japan who would like to whitewash its imperial past, but as time passes a growing number of Japanese have come to view China’s criticisms as a way to push Japan around. Still, many in China believe that Japan has not yet properly atoned for its wartime record that resulted in the deaths of millions of Chinese. (Though they might also ponder how much the Chinese Communist Party has done to atone for its part in the Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution.) Perhaps, Abe, like earlier West German leaders who visited the sites of German atrocities in neighboring European countries, should consider also paying his respects at places like Camp O’Donnell in the Philippines (the terminus of the Bataan Death March).
But even without those visits, Southeast Asian countries, which were once occupied by Japan during the Second World War, have already begun to welcome Japan as a balancer in the region. They seem to have largely set aside their anxieties about Japan’s 73-year old aggression and have made their concerns about China’s current assertiveness a higher priority.