Japanese men clad in outdated military costume march in to pay respects to the country's war dead at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Friday. Pic: AP.

Has Shinzo Abe taken the first steps towards Sino-Japanese reconciliation?

A ceremony to mark the 69th anniversary of Japan’s WWII surrender at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on Friday drew over 80 Japanese politicians, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not among them. The prime minister’s decision to avoid Yasukuni is seen as political move to kick-start a duration of calm in Sino-Japanese relations that could lead to the first diplomatic talks between himself and China’s President Xi Jinping this November.

Since Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping both came to power in 2012, diplomatic relations have deteriorated to the point that both countries view one another as their leading national security threats and have enhanced their military capabilities accordingly.

In April of this year, Japan lifted its post-war ban on its constitution’s pacifist military policy to allow the exporting of weapons abroad (most notably to Vietnam and the Philippines) and permit its forces to fight overseas. Meanwhile, China continues their power politics approach in the region, reporting last week their intention to build five lighthouses on disputed islands in the South China Sea, and the presence of new Chinese Coast Guard vessels in the waters around the Senkaku Islands, all of which are acts of defiance to America’s calls for a period of peace in the region.

The key factors leading to the downward spiral in their diplomatic relations are both countries territorial claims over the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China), and their differences over wartime history, which in China’s opinion the Yasukuni Shrine epitomises.

The Yasukuni Shrine memorialises 2.47 million Japanese soldiers who have died in the past two centuries, including 14 convicted WW II Class-A war criminals. Seen in Japan as a shrine to commemorate those who gave their lives for their country, it is both a symbol of national pride and a reminder of the importance of peace. However, in countries who suffered under Japanese aggression, such as China and South Korea where the war criminals were at large, it symbolises Japan’s attempt to glorify their military history.

In December 2013, Abe’s one and only visit to the Yusukami Shrine as prime minster triggered a wave of international criticism and resulted in Chinese foreign ministers boycotting all talks with their Japanese counterparts for the first half of 2014. Abe’s conservative stance on Japan’s wartime history, stating in his 2006 book Toward A Beautiful Nation that Japan’s convicted warcrimes were not crimes under domestic law, and that the Nanking Massacre or the use of civilian “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers never occurred, has isolated Japan and created further tensions with South Korea.

South Korea and Japan are both America’s main allies in Asia and therefore vital to America’s strength in the Pacific. Yet, relations between both countries relations are at an all-time low, allowing China, once a strong supporter of North Korea, to establish a free-trade agreement with South Korea which will be complete by the end of 2014. This will bring South Korea into China’s sphere of influence and isolate Japan even further. This might explain recent reports of Shinzo Abe possibly visiting Kim Jong Un in North Korea at some point this year, in an attempt to play Xi Jinping at his own game.

As Tokyo and the rest of Asia come to grips with the reordering of power in the region and China’s refusal to moderate its behaviour, it is no surprise that Abe is calling for the first formal set of talks between himself and Xi at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in China this November. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who met briefly with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida’s earlier this week for the first time in two years, was reported saying that holding a summit between both leaders under the current circumstances would be very difficult.

With Xi very much in the position of power, he won’t be in any rush to sit down and compromise with Japan until the political setting suits him favourably. How a meeting with Abe will be viewed from among China’s hardliners is still unclear. In April 2013, Xi had a brief sideline meeting with former Japanese Prime Minister Hu Fuduka at Boao Forum held in South China. Their meeting, however, was never reported on in the state-owned China Daily newspaper, which is seen the mouthpiece for the Chinese government. This suggests Beijing is uncertain on how to approach such talks.

Although Abe’s act of restraint around such a flashpoint was still condoned by Chinese media as he made a donation to Yasukuni, it could set in motion a series of compromises that could lead to an environment where diplomatic relations could come to bloom this November.