'Yasukuni problem' deflects attention from Senkaku issue

'Yasukuni problem' deflects attention from Senkaku issue
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Center) is led by a Shinto priest as he visits Controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo

This is the third installment in a series on the worsening relations between Japan and China.

China has relied on a certain pretense in its global anti-Japan propaganda campaign, launched after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine late last year.

The tactic was on display in an opinion piece by China's ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, published by The Washington Post on Jan. 10: "[Abe] refrained from visiting the shrine during his first term as prime minister, which opened the door to improving Japan's historically strained relations with its neighbors. Yet, his recent actions have closed the door to dialogue."

Although Cui says Abe's visit to Yasukuni has "closed the door to dialogue," is that really the case? Let us examine statements made by top Chinese leaders over the past year.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said Japan should return all the territory it had "stolen" from China, during a visit to Potsdam, Germany, on May 26.

After speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Sept. 20, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said: "We are still ready to sit down and have a dialogue with the Japanese side [over the Senkaku Islands], but first Japan needs to recognize that there is such a dispute. The whole world knows there is a dispute."

China had thus attempted to draw attention to issues surrounding the Senkaku Islands, and taken the position that a summit meeting will not take place unless Japan acknowledges the existence of a territorial dispute with China.

In fact, the last exchange between the leaders of Japan and China-except for the brief contact last September between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a Group of 20 summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia-was when then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda spoke with former Chinese President Hu Jintao on Sept. 9, 2012, on the sidelines of a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok, Russia.

During their short conversation, Hu pressed Noda not to nationalize the Senkaku Islands. However, since former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara floated the idea of purchasing the islands that spring, the Noda administration had been concerned about the prospect of the islands being purchased by a metropolitan government headed by Ishihara, a harsh China critic. Two days after meeting Hu, Noda went ahead with the nationalization plan.

The act "caused the [Chinese] leadership to lose face," according to a top Japanese Foreign Ministry official, and China responded by dispatching a constant stream of government vessels to waters near the islands.

International opinion did not look favorably on China's attempts to pressure Japan. The response from the United States was particularly clear.

According to a US government source, Washington's previous standard response had been that Article 5 at the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan applies to the Senkaku Islands.

But four months after the islands were nationalized, in a meeting with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Washington in January 2013, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US government opposes "any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration."

After China in November unilaterally announced the establishment of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea that included the Senkaku Islands, criticism from other Asian nations, Europe and the United States only intensified.

China's switch from a strong offensive over the Senkaku Islands to focusing almost exclusively on Abe's Yasukuni visit appears to be an attempt to "change the subject by exploiting the Yasukuni visit, so it can end its isolation in the court of global opinion," as the Foreign Ministry official put it.

Whatever the case, Abe's visit to Yasukuni Shrine certainly did not "close the door to dialogue."

Some domestic media echo 'blame Abe' line

Other nations have not necessarily bought China's attempt to blame Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent visit to Yasukuni Shrine for having aggravated Japan's relations with other Asian countries. Yet, some domestic news outlets have printed articles that hew to this point of view.

One example can be seen in an article published in the Jan. 28 morning edition of The Asahi Shimbun headlined "Japan-S Korea thread cut by 'Yasukuni visit tomorrow.'

"Although the article blamed Abe's visit to the shrine for stalling moves toward improved relations with South Korea and China, neither the text nor the timeline that came with the story mentioned the nationalization of the Senkaku Islands, which had led to a cessation of meetings between the leaders of Japan and China.

Regarding ties with South Korea, although Abe has said the "door is always open to dialogue," South Korea had set a variety of preconditions related to the so-called comfort women issue.

"If there were actually moves toward improving relations, where were the changes by the South Korean side in how it dealt with the comfort women issue?" an aide to the prime minister said. However, the article did not address this aspect of the matter.

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