Japan’s PM tries finally to close the books on WWII

Japanese bilateral defense engagement with the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam has deepened considerably. Now, 'Bismarckian' Prime Minister Abe is on his way to Pearl Harbor. Nervous about Chinese ambitions, Japan is strengthing old alliances, and forging new ones

Pearl Harbor
Michael Auslin
On 10 December 2016 07:59

In announcing that he would visit Pearl Harbor with President Obama at the end of this month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continues his bold gambit of putting history behind his nation and recapturing its global influence.

After Obama visited Hiroshima in May, becoming the first US president to do so, a reciprocal visit to Pearl Harbor by Japan’s leader was the next logical move.

Announcing it two days before the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor was a masterstroke of timing, allowing the commemorations (the last major one for any surviving veterans from that day) to truly take on the tinge of a history that is finally being put to rest.

This is only the latest of Abe’s bold diplomatic moves. Perhaps the savviest one was to fly to New York to meet with President-elect Donald Trump just a week after his election (with due acknowledgment of Trump’s willingness to meet).

Given the heated rhetoric about Japan on the campaign trail, with Trump demanding that Japan pay more for hosting US military forces, musing about Japan getting its own nuclear deterrent and withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Abe was understandably concerned about growing tension with his key ally.

Getting to the head of the line in meeting Trump, and talking about common interests, was the best option he had to shift the incoming president’s thinking.

America isn’t the only target of Abe’s diplomatic finesse. His defense minister went to Southeast Asia last week to announce Japan’s first defense-cooperation agreement with countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Given that it was these countries that were the main target of Japan’s December 1941 attack that sparked World War II in the Pacific, the initiative has special significance.

Abe’s initiative, the “Vientiane Vision,” follows a significant increase in Japanese bilateral defense engagement with the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, in which Tokyo has provided military equipment and deepened defense ties to nations worried about China’s growing belligerence in the South China Sea.

Moreover, Abe and Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, have a famously close relationship, and have visited each other numerous times. Tokyo under Abe continues to expand its political and defense ties with New Delhi, a powerful symbol of democratic cooperation in a region still in the shadow of autocratic China.

Abe has also reached out to Europe, signing agreements with NATO and enhancing relations with Great Britain.

Recently, the US, British and Japanese navies signed their first-ever joint cooperation agreement.

By creating a new web of relationships in Asia and abroad, not to mention deepening the alliance with the United States to include areas such as space and cyber, Abe is Asia’s Bismarck, countering China’s presence with increased Japanese influence and a sophisticated network of partners.

He may not have a military as large as China’s, but by stressing that Japan will work to uphold the liberal, rules-based order in Asia and beyond, Abe has added moral weight to his country’s global role.

That brings us back to Pearl Harbor. The major critique of Abe is that he’s a dangerous nationalist who doesn’t acknowledge Japan’s wartime culpability and is trying to free up Japan’s military so as to start doing … well, no one’s quite sure what an “unleashed” Japanese military would do, but restarting World War II seems far down the list.

In reality, Abe has spent the last two years carefully closing the book on World War II, while also positioning his country to deal with a belligerent China, a threatening North Korea and a seemingly waffling United States.

He apologized for Japan’s past expansionism publicly in both Washington, DC, before Congress and in Canberra, Australia, vowing that Japan would never repeat the mistakes of the 1940s, and concluded a landmark agreement with South Korea over wartime comfort women. Only with China has he made no historical headway.

But Pearl Harbor was always in a special category of its own. Just the act of showing up to lay a wreath and not drop a bomb would be in and of itself a tacit apology for thrusting both countries into war.

By doing so just after the 75th anniversary of that bloody Sunday, Abe has made clear that his Bismarckian genius is focused on securing Japan’s future, and not re-litigating its past.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues. Before joining AEI, Auslin was an associate professor of history at Yale University. His articles can be read here

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