Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, should be feeling the heat at Davos, as he attempts to reduce the regional tension and improve his image to neighboring countries in East Asia. As a first Japanese Prime Minister to speak at Davos, Abe defended his controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan’s convicted war criminals, including 14 Class A war criminals, are buried. He also criticized China for its aggressive military spending and activities in the South China Sea.
Abe stated that his visit to Yasukuni was not intended to upset the victims of Japan’s atrocities during the Second World War. He emphasized that, as his predecessor had done by his visit to Yasukuni, he wanted to honor all the dead from World War II, not just war criminals.
Prime Minister Abe also took a swipe at China for rapid military expansion and territorial issues in the South China. Without naming China, he labeled it as a country that expands its military objectives in territorial issues with neighbors. Last November, China unilaterally expanded its Air Defense Identification (ADIZ), which then forced Japan and South Korea similarly to declare their own ADIZs in the East China Sea. Interestingly, when Japan issued its own ADIZ, China accused Japan of making false accusations, while it did not heap similar accusation against South Korea.
While raising the issue of increasing military spending and territorial issues, Abe said in his interview with FT that he sees the current situation in East Asia as similar to the rapid military build-up of Germany and the United Kingdom before the First World War. Any inadvertent actions and reactions, he indicated, would lead to a full-blown military conflict in East Asia. The problem with Abe’s speech at Davos and interviews, however, is that he does not have credibility among key regional players to lessen regional tension
After Abe’s speech, Wu Xinho, another Davos Speaker whose perspective often represents those of Chinese leaders, labeled the Japanese Prime Minister as a “troublemaker”, Reuters reports. South Korea President Park has refused to meet Abe, who attended her Davos speech. She considers it politically and diplomatically fruitless to meet Abe after his recent visit to Yasukuni and failure to resolve the issue of South Korean sex slaves during the WW II.
The lack of trust in Abe by China and South Korea also had unintended consequences, which may have motivated Abe to work to reduce tensions with China and South Korea. The United States, the Japan’s most staunch ally, needs Japan, China, and South Korea all working together to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program. The US also needs South Korea to counter China’s increasingly aggressive position in the region against the US and its allies. Ever since Abe became a prime minister, the US avoided taking sides on the Yasukuni visit and other regional issues. However, early January 2014, the U.S Congress passed the resolution, embedded into the 2014 budget, calling on the Secretary of State to seek a solution in the issue of the World War II sex slavery by Japan. Although the resolution has no teeth, it demonstrates a serious concern in the region by the U.S government.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces many challenges at home: declining popularity, radiation risk in Fukushima, and still-fragile economy. By working hard to reduce regional tensions with Japan’s neighbors in early 2014 ,he will help himself manage more serious and politically dangerous domestic issues.
By Jonathan JY Jung