In the latter half of April 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with both Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barak Obama. There were some speculations that he may change his course of being unapologetic on the Japanese colonial past but nothing of that sort happened. On 22 April 2015, Abe met the Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia African Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia. It was expected that it would be a better exchange between the two leaders than November 2014 when they encountered in Beijing in a very awkward way.
Optimists believed that in the wake of the 70th anniversary of the end of WW2, Abe might make a statement in August 2015 in which he would change his course of being unapologetic on history issues and his address in Jakarta would be a precursor to that. However, optimists should not have neglected the fact that just a week before his Jakarta visit, Abe sent an offering to the Yasukuni shrine, knowing quite well how it would be received in neighbouring countries. In Jakarta too, Abe stopped by just expressing ‘deep remorse’ for Japan’s role in WW2 and did not make a formal apology – that was made during the same meeting in 2005 by the then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
During his week-long visit to the US from 26 April, Abe addressed the Joint Session of the US Congress – the first by any Japanese prime minister. It was again expected that he might say something that would be soothing to the countries that have gone through Japanese colonial exploitations and humiliation. But Abe emphasised the supreme importance of the Japanese alliance with the US and also underlined the strategic significance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In his speech in the US, he again assiduously avoided language related to Japan’s colonial past – which has been convention.
Abe probably feels that his consistent ‘aggressive’ approach and unapologetic behaviour would gradually become more acceptable in regional politics and even if it does happen, his stance is very successful for the Japanese domestic politics. He is quite convinced that a declining US would like to have a partner in Asia Pacific, one that fully supports their policy of Asian ‘re-balancing’ or ‘pivot to Asia’ and takes a lead in regional politics. In the process, if Tokyo takes lead and becomes ‘assertive’ vis-à-vis Beijing, it would reduce Washington’s burden and provide them with negotiating space in dealing with China. In the process, Abe feels that an apologetic stance does not go well with an ‘assertive’ Japan.
Abe is also quite consistent in being unapologetic on history issues, uncompromising on territorial issues, and aggressive in dealing with neighbouring countries. Abe feels that if the US support continues, he could carry forward his approach without much problems. From his speech at the US Congress, it also appears that he is interested in invoking democracy as common meeting point to connect Japan with India and Australia. Abe also assumes that even though it is dangerous to have a military confrontation in the region, it is useful to keep the situation ‘warm’ and utilise it for his political purposes.
However, he is mistaken and even if his policies may buy him popularity in Japan’s domestic politics, they would not succeed in producing desired results in its external relations. First, his approach may strengthen the US-Japan bilateral but it has led to the emergence of serious mistrust in the US-South Korea-Japan trilateral. It is not surprising that South Korean President Park Geun-hye is ready to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un unconditionally, but prefers to get Abe’s apology on the ‘comfort women’ issue before any bilateral talks with him. Second, Shinzo Abe’s policies have been pushing South Korea closre to China over the past few years. Incidentally, a conservative party government is in power in South Korea, one that has strong bonds with the old and reliable ally – the US; but if there would have been a progressive government in South Korea, the entire equation would have been markedly different.
Third, the Japanese behaviour provides breathing space to North Korea, which was feeling pinch of economic sanctions, especially after its third nuclear test in February 2013. Any problem in the Japan-US-South Korea trilateral gives North Korea manoeuvring chance. Fourth, Japan’s expectations that India and Australia as democratic countries would necessarily go along with Japan may not be correct. Democratic values include tolerance, peace, stability and common prosperity. If Tokyo’s unapologetic behaviour does not appear to move in this direction, New Delhi’s and Canberra’s supports cannot be unconditional and as a given.
Lastly, there is no fool proof mechanism to keep political and strategic relations in the regional politics ‘warm’. There is always a serious chance of miscalculation and such strategies must be avoided.
Thus, it would be right to disagree with optimists who keep imagining a changed Shinzo Abe in near future, especially if the US does not change its foreign policy course or regains its huge relative prominence. Since both the options appear either remote or impossible, with all the changes, Abe’s approach will remain the same.