Shinzo Abe’s Foreign Policy Making Neighbors Unhappy

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Most people will remember Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy of “proactive pacifism” as he attends the Bandung Conference in Indonesia this week. Leaders from 80 Asian and African countries will be there to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the conference where world leaders first opposed colonialism in 1955, during the height of the Cold War.

Abe has wanted Japan’s foreign policy to be more hands-on, but the ways in which he has been going about it is making the neighboring countries unhappy. In the ongoing conference, Abe has had to be especially careful about promoting a more active Japanese military, as 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. He might want Japan to play a more active role in world stability and regional politics, but his push comes at a time when the neighboring nations are still nursing their grudges and wounds from the war and are not willing to forgive Japan for war-time crimes and atrocities.

Japanese military was restricted by Article 9 of the postwar Constitution enacted in 1954, wherein they renounced the right to declare war or use military force to solve international disputes. This limited the scope of military intervention and also ensured that the country was not dragged into any more conflict. Last year, though, at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ summit, Abe announced that Japan would cooperate with other like-minded nations to uphold international rules and to discourage China’s expansionist policies. He immediately took steps to try to neutralize nuclear threats from the nuclear-missile-equipped North Korea as well as from China’s assertiveness in the region.

Abe has also been trying to downplay Japan’s role in the war, stating in an interview yesterday that there would be no more apologies to the victims of Japanese aggression.  He addressed the nation while talking to Fuji TV, saying, “I uphold the basic thinking behind past war apologies, which means there isn’t a need to reiterate them.”

Also during the conference, Abe mentioned that Japan had “feelings of deep remorse over the past war,” but downplayed their involvement. This policy, though, made Abe’s neighbors very unhappy as they felt that Japan has not done enough to make amends.

South Korea was one of the offended countries. Japan’s relations with South Korea have never been good because of the way South Korea was brutally colonized by Japan during the early 20th century. This year marks the 50th anniversary of normalized diplomatic ties between the nations. The two nations also continue to be at odds on the matter of the enslavement of sex slaves in wartime brothels. South Korea has been demanding compensation for the “comfort women.”

The China-Japan rivalry is historical as well, dating back to when the tiny island nation won Taiwan from China’s Qing dynasty in 1895. War crimes during World War II and the Nanking Massacre of 1937 are some of the contentious issues between the two countries.

Then there was also the news that Abe sent a ritual offering to the Yasukuni Shrine, which is seen as the mark of Japanese militarism by the neighboring countries. The shrine honors wartime leaders and Japan’s casualties during World War II. Any visit to the shrine draws immediate criticism from China and South Korea, who suffered at Japan’s hands, and that may be the reason why Abe did not personally visit the shrine during the annual spring festival this year.

Japan is in the midst of several territorial claims in the East China Sea, which have fractured its relations. It has competing claims with China over Senkaku or Diaoyu Island and the exclusive economic zone in the region. Both countries have not managed to reach an agreement and there has been news of Chinese military vessels patrolling the area. Japan is also fighting with South Korea over the Dokdo or Takeshima islands. Over the years, Japanese school textbooks have been revised to state the disputed islands were Japanese territory and being illegally occupied by South Korea, but South Korea maintains that they have historic rights over the islands and have maintained an administrative setup on the islands since their freedom from imperial Japan.

People are hopeful that the talks between Abe and Xi Jinping, the Chinese president at the conference, will help the countries find some common ground. Both leaders were seen shaking hands and posing for pictures, albeit uncomfortably. The two leaders will also be flexing their muscles to show off their regional supremacy during the talks. Any reconciliation with South Korea, though, has been elusive. Abe’s government has not held any bilateral talks with the country until now and even though the South Korean Prime Minister, Park Geun-Hye, is attending the conference, there has been no news of any future meetings until now.

Abe’s foreign policy might have made his neighbors unhappy, but U.S. and Japan ties are still strong. Both countries are close to concluding talks on bilateral defense agreements wherein Japanese troops can respond to threats against the U.S. military, even if the American forces were not defending Japan at the time. Moreover, Abe will also address a joint meeting of the Congress, making him the first Japanese prime minister to do so.

By Anugya Chitransh

South China Morning Post
The Diplomat
The Korea Times
The Washington Post

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