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A Temporary Illusion
Abe's low-key policy on China doesn't aim to thaw Sino-Japanese relations
By Tang Qifang | NO. 39 SEPTEMBER 28, 2017

Members of Shinzo Abe's cabinet take a group photo after the cabinet reshuffle on August 3(XINHUA)

This year marks the 45th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic ties between China and Japan. Against this backdrop, there have been growing calls in both countries for improvement in bilateral relations. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is well known for his hawkish stance toward China and revisionist take on Japan's crimes during World War II (WWII), has nonetheless shown positive signs in recent months regarding China.

Are China-Japan relations really on the upswing?

An unusual move

The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo where 14 Class-A war criminals in WWII are honored is a symbol of Japan's militarist past. Abe had not only made repeated visits to the shrine before he became prime minister, but also paid tribute there in 2013 after assuming the post for a second time, sparking fierce criticism within and outside of Japan. Many of Japan's politicians and current cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Taro Aso and Minister for the Empowerment of Women Haruko Arimura, had also visited the shrine.

However, no cabinet members visited the shrine on the anniversary of Japan's WWII defeat on August 15 this year. Compared with previous visits by high-level officials, only some less influential politicians participated in this year's activity. Shinjirou Koizumi, son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and head of the young legislators caucus of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and Masahiko Shibayama, a special adviser to Abe, were present.

It was the first time that no ministerial-level officials had visited the shrine on August 15 since Abe returned to power in December 2012, and also the first time this had occurred for a cabinet led by the LDP since 1980.

Moreover, Abe orchestrated a large reshuffle of his cabinet in early August and appointed Taro Kono, son of former House of Representatives Speaker Yohei Kono, as foreign minister. Yohei Kono is widely seen as friendly to China. And thus the appointment was also deemed a positive move to ease Japan's relations with neighboring countries.

What's more, in May, Abe sent an LDP delegation to participate in the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing. Despite Tokyo's reluctance in supporting the China-proposed development initiative, it seems willing to take advantage of the business opportunities that the initiative will create.

Abe's "positive" signals, however, are not designed to improve relations with neighboring countries. Trapped by various scandals and low approval ratings, the measures merely aim to improve the external environment to ameliorate internal political turmoil.

The real account

In February, Japanese media revealed that Moritomo Gakuen, a nationalist educational company, bought a plot of land at about one 10th of its average price from the Japanese Government to build an elementary school. Abe and his wife Akie Abe were allegedly involved in putting pressure on the Ministry of Finance to give the discount, since the school planned on the land was to be named after Abe. Moreover, Abe's wife was offered the position of honorary principal at the school.

During the investigation of the land deal, Abe was also found to have misused his influence to help his old friend Kotaro Kake, Chairman of the Kake Educational Institution, gain approval to open a new veterinary school.

Furthermore, a scandal over the cover-up of Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF) logs in South Sudan also drew widespread condemnation. According to peacekeeping operation laws in Japan, the country can only dispatch SDF units to UN-led peacekeeping missions if a ceasefire agreement among conflicting parties is maintained. However, the logs recording the deteriorating security situation in South Sudan, which were said to have been discarded by the Ministry of Defense, were later uncovered. Tomomi Inada, then Defense Minister, resigned as a result. Many other senior defense officials were also involved in the scandal.

Although under pressure from the public and opposition parties, Abe responded to these scandals in a perfunctory manner, a reflection of arrogance and complacency about his overwhelming political clout due to the ruling party's dominance in the parliament.

The LDP paid a price for Abe's conceit with a heavy defeat in Tokyo's metropolitan assembly election on July 3. The approval ratings of the Abe administration continued to slump, falling to below 30 percent in mid-July. As a result, Abe had to reshuffle his cabinet ahead of schedule in August.

Besides the internal scrambling, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have also made Japan more cautious. North Korea has conducted 10 missile launches since the beginning of this year, some of which fell near or flew over Japan. Meanwhile, despite protests from China and Russia, the U.S. has sped up the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea and has held several joint military drills in waters near the Peninsula.

Japan could possibly become North Korea's target if tensions go out of control. Thus, besides strengthening its alliance with the United States, Japan needs to promote consultation and collaboration with China and South Korea. This may also explain part of the reasons why Abe and his cabinet members were absent from this year's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15.

But it is not difficult to figure out that this year's phenomenon does not indicate a shift in Japan's attitude toward its WWII crimes.

Abe failed to mention the need for "reflection" over Japan's wartime responsibilities once again during the annual ceremony to "honor the dead" in WWII on August 15. On the same day, he refused to renegotiate an agreement on wartime sex slavery with the South Korean Government.

With a rebound in approval ratings after the recent cabinet reshuffle, Abe has stepped up efforts to amend Article 9 of Japan's pacifist post-war constitution. The article states that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes." It goes on to state that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized." The LDP held a meeting to discuss constitutional revisions that would clarify the existence of the SDF on September 12.

Therefore, once the internal and external pressures are relieved, it won't be surprising if Japan's cabinet members visit the Yasukuni Shrine again. There is still a long road ahead for improving China-Japan relations.

The author is an associate researcher with the China Institute of the International Studies

Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan

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