18 January 2019
Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December has aggravated tensions between Tokyo and Beijing. Photo: Bloomberg
Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December has aggravated tensions between Tokyo and Beijing. Photo: Bloomberg

Sino-Japan tensions: Keeping the pot from boiling over

Business leaders, it seems, are increasingly worried about the continuing hostility between China and Japan. The New York Times reported that at the World Economic Forum in Davos, despite general optimism about the global economy, there was growing concern that the Sino-Japanese dispute “may be close to boiling over”.

Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group, was quoted as saying that in conversations with forty American CEOs, more than half voiced concern over the issue.

And a senior American official, Daniel R. Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said at a briefing last week: “The global economy is so important and, frankly, so fragile that we can’t afford to have the world’s second and third largest economies at odds. We can’t afford to have Japan and China, let alone Japan, China, and Korea, working at cross-purposes.”

The visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in December to the Yasukuni Shrine – where 2.5 million of Japan’s war dead, including 14 individuals convicted as Class A war criminals, are enshrined – aggravated tensions with both China and South Korea.

Increasingly, South Korea is joining hands with China in opposition to Japan, even though both Seoul and Tokyo are allies of Washington. Last month, a memorial hall honoring Ahn Jung-geun, a Korean who in 1909 assassinated the Japanese governor of Korea, Hirobumi Ito, opened in Harbin, in northeastern China, where the killing occurred. Ahn, considered a national hero in Korea, was executed by Japan as a murderer.

Disputes stemming from history are now moving in a new direction, with both sides hoping to make use of UNESCO’s Memory of the World program, whose purpose is the preservation of the world’s documentary heritage.

The Japanese are asking UNESCO to register letters and wills written by kamikaze pilots before they took to the air to ram their planes into allied ships in World War II.

Koreans and Chinese, on the other hand, are asking UNESCO for registration of documentary evidence regarding 200,000 “comfort women” forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during the war.

Almost 70 years after the war’s end, the three parties seem eager to rub salt into reopened wounds, with leaders comparing today’s situation with that of World War I and World War II.

There is a serious danger that the war of words may transform into a shooting war; and it is time for all sides to agree to a truce. Just as the Sino-Japanese dispute over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan has ratcheted upward for over a year, it will probably take time to wind down the dispute.

It is useful to remember that China’s then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping decided in 1978 to shelve the issue because he could not see a solution. Thirty-six years later, there is still no solution in sight and the best thing to do is to re-shelve the issue.

If China and Japan decide to put the issue back on the shelf, then each must step back from the brink and not do anything to provoke the other. This is no time for appeals to nationalistic domestic audiences.

Since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down as prime minister in 2006, six Japanese prime ministers have refrained from visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, realizing that such acts would be provocative to not only China but to South Korea as well.

Actually, Abe was the first post-Koizumi leader not to visit the shrine when he was prime minister in 2006-2007. But now he has broken the tradition that he himself started.

If any semblance of peace is to be restored to the region, there must not be anymore such visits. Certainly, they are offensive not only to Japan’s neighbors but also to its ally, the United States. They serve no purpose except to appease rightists in Japan.

Cessation of Yasukuni visits can be taken as a peace overture to China and South Korea. It would be a positive first step after which all parties can make conciliatory gestures designed to heal, not reopen, wounds. The objective should be the reopening of dialogue at the highest level.

President Park Geun-hye of South Korea, who has already met her Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, should work towards an early meeting with Prime Minister Abe. As allies of the United States, they should be working in concert, not against each other.

It is time to lower the temperature and make sure that the pot does not boil over.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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