Tokyo’s Messages to Beijing

Tokyo, Japan (NEO) – August 15 is among the most significant and all-important days both for the politics of Japan and its immediate neighbours that watch, ever more closely each year, everything happening in one of the leading Asian countries. The reasons are clear enough.

Let us recall that on this very day 71 years ago, Emperor Hirohito accepted the terms of surrender that had been outlined by the Allied countries at the Potsdam Conference three weeks earlier. Since then, August 15, 1945 in Japan has been considered the day of the end of war in the Asian-Pacific region, the war that was knowingly launched by so-called Marco Polo Bridge Incident of June 7, 1937 outside Beijing.

The Asian-Pacific “theatre” of World War II was as devastating as in Europe, and resulted in the death of dozens of millions of people. As the country that experienced the Japanese aggression the most, China still feels strongly about the war memories. It is the Chinese that pay close attention to the actions and decisions taken by each leading Japanese politician and to Japan’s domestic politics in general on and around this important day.

The most important celebrations for this event were organized last year. Marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific, the event saw the adoption of a package of new bills on defence. China regards this adoption as the beginning of a process that will lead to a fresh upgrade of Japan’s military forces and defence policy.

More likely, this year could see the further development of this process. The experts unanimously predicted the introduction of sweeping changes to the “anti-war” provision of the constitution into force as early as the fall of this year, as the July 10, 2016 election ruling announced that the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) and its allies had won the qualified majority in the parliament’s upper house.

However, the unexpected top priority challenge of closing legislation gaps caused by the Emperor Akihito’s intention to step down from his office may affect the making of the legislation in the near future. The experts have already expressed the view that the replacement of the Emperor may symbolize the traditional Japanese political culture of changing the whole state’s image.

The Chinese (and many Koreans) describe the nature of these changes as the “renaissance of Japanese militarism”. Whether the above will have an adequate impact on the actual processes in Japan is a different question that is subject to discussion.

China and both Koreas watch the ceremonial commemorations for the killed Japanese soldiers that is traditionally held by Japanese public authorities in the “special” Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, with utmost attention. According to Shinto tradition, the spirits of Japan’s leaders who were executed on military charges during World War II in accordance with the sentence passed by the Tribunal in Tokyo also stay in this very Shrine. The prayers for the dead may take different forms; from direct visiting and participation in the memorial service, to sending ritual offerings to the Shrine. While Beijing (and Seoul) may “frown upon” the latter form, the former will surely cause a strong formal protest, for instance, the cancellation of planned government-level meetings.

The speculations on how Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, who had repeatedly declared that Japan has the right to perform the ritual in any way it finds appropriate, will commemorate the dead, remained in full swing in the first half of 2015. Back then (and this year) he confined himself to sending the offerings. Beijing did not regard this action as a sufficient indication of Tokyo’s willingness to assess the recent history of Japanese “honestly and sincerely”, as it did not accept his ambiguous “anniversary-inspired” speech.

This year, Tomomi Inada, whose status on the Japanese political scene has risen dramatically after August 3 when she was appointed the Defence Minister, was awarded particular attention. As a representative of the hawkish wing of the LDP, Ms Inada used to visit the Yasukuni Shrine every August 15. This year, however, after taking up the senior public office, she confined herself to sending ritual offerings.

Image Source: Edward Dalmulder, Flickr, Creative Commons Himeji Castle, Japan

Image Source: Edward Dalmulder, Flickr, Creative Commons
Himeji Castle, Japan

Instead, it was the Republic of Djibouti; a tiny country strategically located within the Horn of Africa, that became the top priority on the agenda of her first foreign trip that took place during ceremonies that were related to another anniversary of the Japan’s surrender. The Japanese Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) established the first (and, so far, the only) “overseas” military base in Djibouti in the post-war period. It is this base and meetings with its staff that were at top of the new defence minister’s agenda during her first overseas trip. And this trip was conceived as a clear message of the Japan’s intention to expand its military presence overseas, primarily in the waters of the Indian Ocean.

It would be appropriate to note that China also has a military base in Djibouti. Both bases were opened approximately at the same time in 2013, and it was back then that the bilateral discussion of “Who started first and who reacted” started.

Today, this question is no longer relevant. What is important is the announced military presence of two leading Asian countries in this highly strategic region, as already noted, on the pretence of counteracting the notorious Somali pirates.

The next round of confrontation between Japan and China took place near the deserted Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands just before August 15. It is assumed in Japan that in doing so, China was trying to “win back” its political (and indeed serious) failure in the South China Sea that resulted from the decision of the well-known Hague Court of Arbitration.

Finally, attention was brought to the leaking of the information to the press (which took place on the eve of August 15) that Shinzō Abe had joined the leaders of the United Kingdom, France and Russia to allegedly address the US president, Barack Obama, requesting him to not introduce the “no first use” principle in the US nuclear strategy.

Shinzō Abe (again, allegedly) sent the relevant request to the US leadership during the visit by the Admiral Harry Harris, the head of the US Pacific Command. The “refutation” was vaguely created by unknown sources in the Japanese Government and it rather confirmed the accuracy of the above information. China’s response was quite expected.

Let us recall that the security guarantees that the US made to its key Asian ally are still based on the postulate of the possible use of nuclear weapons, or even conventional weaponry, in response to any attack launched on Japanese territory.

Therefore, everything that happened on August 15, prior to and right after this day, did not result in any significant improvement of the relations between Japan and China, the very relations that the situation in whole East Asia depends on.

In this context, the G20 Summit that will take place in China in early September will become the next check point. The answer to the question of whether the Japanese and Chinese leaders are going to meet during this summit is still unclear. If so, in what format will they conduct the meeting? Are they going to have a “small talk” along the hallway, or will it be a comprehensive, round-the-table talk?

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.