On December 26th, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where, since the late 19th century, the souls of Japan’s war dead have been enshrined. Because fourteen Class A war criminals from World War II are among those enshrined, China, which Japan invaded in the 1930s, has always taken offense when Japanese prime ministers have gone to Yasukuni to pay their respects. It has regarded these visits as a negative indicator of Japan’s future intentions. This latest occasion was no exception, and tensions between the two countries have risen as a result. That may not have been Prime Minister Abe’s intention, but that was certainly the result.
China’s rhetorical response has been harsh, but in other respects, the reaction is somewhat restrained. There have been no anti-Abe demonstrations, and it’s hard to believe that there were no Chinese citizens who felt like taking to the streets. That none have (so far) suggests that at least on this occasion, the government has used institutional and political capital to restrain public protest. One Chinese commentator even argued in print that Chinese outbursts would only strengthen the hand of right-wing forces in Japan, which would not be in China’s interests.
What will be China’s response beyond the short term? Actually, we have seen this movie before – from 2001 to 2006 when Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro visited Yasukuni repeatedly, ignoring China’s concerns. Japan-China relations went into the deep freeze and Beijing undertook a series of policy measures. I expect that China will follow the same playbook, which it has also used with appropriate adjustments, against Christopher Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, and Presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan. The pages of that playbook, adapted for the current circumstances would be:
• Demonize Abe himself and minimize the amount of high-level diplomatic contact that Chinese leaders have with him;
• Freeze any government-to-government cooperation that benefits Japanese interests;
• Set forth a set of clear requirements of what Japan will have to do to restore good relations (perhaps, for example, a pledge from the Japanese prime minister to make no more visits to Yasukuni);
• Exert pressure on Japan at specific points of friction, for example, the islands that China calls Diaoyu and Japan calls Senkaku;
• Cultivate political forces in Japan who might share China’s views about Abe’s actions (for example, sympathetic politicians and sectors of the business community that rely on trade with China);
• Seek to drive wedges between Japan and the United States and between Japan and Korea;
• Compete vigorously with Japan in international arenas (e.g. in Africa); and
• Play for time, until Abe ends his tenure as prime minister.
This strategy puts the United States on the spot. We want good relations with both Japan, an ally, and China, an increasingly important international actor. When tensions between Beijing and Tokyo increase, each wishes that Washington take its side. It becomes difficult for America to facilitate three-way cooperation on issues where, objectively, it is in the interests of all three countries to do work together (e.g. North Korea). At the same time, there is not much that the United States can do to develop a fix to the Yasukuni problem. It entails strong emotions about national identity in both China and Japan that only they can address. Consequently, the Obama administration will have to tread carefully.