16 July 2019
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is led by a Shinto priest as he visits the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Thursday. Photo: Reuters
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is led by a Shinto priest as he visits the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

WEEKENDER: Abe shrine visit throws China relations to icy age

More than a year after Japan’s nationalization of the Diaoyu islands (known as Senkaku in Japan) has sent China-Japan ties to the nadir, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s surprise visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on Thursday looks set to throw their bilateral relations to a glacier age. On Friday, mainland authorities and media sharpened their attacks against Abe, who, as analysts have observed, appears bent on playing hardball with Beijing. Amid the profoundly changing dynamics in northeast Asia, relations between the two major powers are heading towards an uncertain stage.

Intriguingly coinciding with the 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth, Abe’s visit to a shrine that is linked to Japan’s military past has given rise to different interpretations. According to one theory, the timing was meant to draw less furious attacks from Beijing as Communist Party leaders would have been preoccupied with the nationwide commemoration. It was also intended to draw less attention from Western governments and media as it fell on Boxing Day. They were wrong.

Shortly after the Abe visit, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said China has lodged a strong protest and severe reprimand against the move. It was followed by a formal protest by Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua {程永華} at the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Tokyo. In Beijing, Foreign Minister Wang Yi {王毅} summoned the Japanese Ambassador to China for another strong protest.

Wang warned China would not recede if Japan continued to deliberately challenge the bottom-line of China-Japan relations by heightening tensions and provoking confrontation. “What Abe has said and done is leading Japan towards a dangerous direction,” Wang said.

In an early sign of the possible downgrading of relations, Vice Premier Liu Yandong {劉延東} cancelled a meeting with a visiting delegation of Japanese parliamentarians in Beijing on Thursday. The People’s Liberation Army also made a rare public condemnation of Abe’s visit.

Meanwhile, South Korea joined the chorus of attacks against the shrine visit. Though refraining from making a harsh criticism, the United States expressed disappointment at Abe’s move, which it fears would exacerbate tensions between Japan and its neighbors.

On Friday, the official media called for tougher action. “People are getting tired of such futile ‘strong condemnations’,” said an editorial in the official Global Times newspaper. “China needs to take appropriate, even slightly excessive countermeasures” or else it would “be seen as a ‘paper tiger’”, it warned. Abe, it said, should be listed as an “unwelcome person”, being denied entry into China.

A commentary on the People’s Daily website said China should recall its ambassador to Japan and downgrade diplomatic relations with the country.

Beijing’s swift and tough response shows the leadership of President Xi Jinping has virtually given up hope that Abe would be keen to improve their damaged relations. Events in the past year have prompted Beijing to believe the opposite may be true.

Suffering from a dip in popularity, Abe has resorted to playing up nationalistic sentiments to help boost public support. Since the deterioration of the territorial dispute in East China Sea last year, the Abe government has rolled out major plans to beef up Japan’s military defense force, stoking fears in China and South Korea about Abe’s rightist, militarist inclinations.

Despite Abe’s pledge in a statement on Thursday that “Japan must never wage a war again”, his visit to the shrine has and would be seen as an act of downright provocation and disregard for the feelings of the people in China and the region. Importantly, the controversial move has apparently gone against the wishes of US President Barack Obama’s administration, who would be anxious to avoid further escalation of tensions between China and Japan.

If the game plan of Obama to avert a looming conflict between China and Japan is increasingly shrouded in uncertainty, it is because his power to influence Tokyo seems to have weakened. Abe knows only too well the US needs Japan as one of its key allies in the region to exercise checks and balances on a rising China. Simply put, there is little Washington can do to stop Abe from playing the dangerous provocative game in the region.

Against the background of growing tensions in the region and stepped-up military and defense deployment by both sides in the East China Sea, Abe has deliberately or unwittingly sent a message to China he has virtually given up hope for reconciliation by paying a visit to the shrine.

And if Beijing leaders have held out expectations Japan was still keen on improving relations with China, Abe’s shrine visit might have put that to rest.

China looks certain to act tougher towards Japan as it contemplates all practical measures to counter what they deem as a provocation. Economic relations and cultural exchanges between the two nations are facing a fresh setback. The risk of military conflict in the East China Sea can no longer be dismissed as a remote possibility as the troubled relationship between the two countries enter a prolonged icy period in the next few years.

Chris Yeung is deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. This column appears every Friday.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]



He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe