In a recent press conference, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo expressed a desire to meet with Chinese and South Korean leaders to explain why he visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine in late December of 2013. “Seeking dialogue with China and South Korea is extremely important for the peace and security of this region,” Reuters quoted Abe as saying. “I would like to explain my true intentions regarding my visit to Yasukuni.”
The response from China was quick and predictable: no way, no how. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying told the press that China had already “explicitly stated its position” towards the possibility of Abe meeting with Chinese leaders. The answer was (and remains) a resounding no. Hua accused Abe of “playing a double game in China-Japan relations ever since he took office.” Abe pays lip service to improving the relationship, but “the erroneous actions he takes jeopardize the overall interests of China-Japan relations and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”
It seems that the visit to Yasukuni Shrine was the last straw for Chinese leaders in their dealings with Abe. Hua said that Abe’s decision to visit the Shrine “severely damages the political foundations of China-Japan relations.” Ever since, the Chinese have repeatedly stated that high-level meetings between the two countries are off the table — not that talks looked particularly likely before then. What’s more, China has placed the ball for restarting such dialogues squarely in Abe’s court. “It is Abe himself who shuts the door on dialogue with Chinese leaders,” Hua said. Now, China insists only Abe can re-open that door by showing “earnest and profound remorse” for Japan’s “history of aggression and colonialism” and by taking “real steps” to improve the relationship. Of course, it’s hard to imagine any step that Abe could realistically take as being “earnest” and “profound” enough for China’s government.
No matter what one believes about Japan’s past in general or the Yasukuni Shrine in particular, Abe could not have failed to recognize the enormous backlash his visit to the shrine would cause. It’s disingenuous to act now like the incident was just a misunderstanding, one that could be solved by an in-person explanation of his “true intentions.” And if that were the case, Abe would have been wise to make such explanations before visiting the shrine. In diplomacy, perception is often the key. No matter how innocuous or well-intentioned an action may be, if it strikes the other party as offensive or threatening, that action is inherently harmful to the diplomatic relationship. This explains the furor over China’s ADIZ. It also explains the damage done to China-Japan ties by Abe’s visit to Yasukuni.
It would seem Abe determined that going to the shrine was in his (and presumably Japan’s) best interests. My colleague Ankit argued earlier that the visit was a calculated political move designed to increase domestic support for Abe’s nationalistic policies. Whatever the reason, Abe’s visit to the shrine proves that China-Japan ties can be sacrificed in the pursuit of another goal. Whatever Abe thought he was accomplishing by going to Yasukuni was more important to him than avoiding the wrath of both China and South Korea. This political calculation does not inspire confidence for the future of China-Japan relations under Abe.
Even before Abe was elected prime minister on December 26, 2012, Chinese media were warning that he would be overly nationalistic. People’s Daily noted that in August 2012 Abe promised to reconsider the “three talks” reflecting agreements on how Japan would deal with its wartime history. The “three talks” included a promise not to have historical textbooks that upset Japan’s neighbors as well as two apologies (one for the “comfort women” and one more generally for Japan’s colonial rule). The editorial saw Abe’s promise as “avoiding or deliberately distorting historical facts” and “an attempt to revive … militarism.”
Upon Abe’s election, major Chinese news outlets expressed dismay over the future of China-Japan relations. An editorial in China Daily predicted that, if Abe followed the diplomatic policies he laid out in his campaign, “he will only aggravate the tension” between China and Japan. The Global Times argued that “in the short term, it’s impossible for the [China-Japan] relationship to be what is was before the outbreak of the Diaoyu Islands conflicts.” China seems resigned to a rocky relationship with Japan over the next few years. While the article noted that all-out war was unlikely, it also warned that “There’s no domestic political room for China to ease its attitude toward Japan on the issues of the Diaoyu Islands and the Yasukuni Shrine.”
This is even truer now, after China’s leaders have repeatedly doubled down on their criticism of Abe and Japan. China’s rhetoric has escalated to the point that it would be all but impossible for the leadership to back down — assuming that Abe does not capitulate and give Beijing a reason to restore ties. This is also unlikely, because Abe has his own domestic image to consider. Diplomacy is hard enough when two countries genuinely want to keep tensions at a minimum. When one or both reaps a domestic advantage from stoking the fire, forget about easing tensions —avoiding actual conflict is the best case scenario.
Under the circumstances, the only hope for a reset of China-Japan ties is if Abe is ousted as prime minister. Abe has too much invested in his image as a nationalist to back down, and China’s leaders have repeated their scathing critiques too many times to be able to go back on them. Only fresh faces could potentially end the freeze — and Xi Jinping isn’t going anywhere. Should Abe’s economic policies peter out, costing him the next election, there is some hope for an end to the standoff. In the meantime, both countries are firmly stuck on their current trajectories, which is bad news for security in the Asia-Pacific.