An avoidable crisis

Shinzo Abe's visit to a war shrine has exacerbated tensions in East Asia.

The mode of first anniversary celebration by Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could double as an object lesson in how to lose friends and alienate neighbours. Abe became the first sitting PM since Junichiro Koizumi in 2006 to visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo a memorial dedicated to honouring, among Japan's 2.5 million World War II-dead, such Class A war criminals as Hideki Tojo, the country's wartime PM. In doing so, Abe has outraged China and South Korea, which bore the brunt of Japan's imperial ambitions and its resultant brutality. His action also invited rare opprobrium from the US.

Of course, ordinarily, this might not amount to more than a routine assertion by Beijing of its continued dissatisfaction with Japanese attempts to atone for its war crimes. China's perception that Japan is insufficiently apologetic about its conduct during World War II and its anxieties over any demonstration of Japanese nationalism are longstanding issues between the two nations. But this provocation is the latest in a series of contests between China and Japan, most notably over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

Abe has done Japan no favours with this visit. China has been aggressively staking its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Its growing assertiveness is being observed with trepidation by others in the region, but the prospect of cooperation with Japan in a competition against China was complicated by the visit, which helped raise the spectre of resurgent Japanese militarism. Now, as Beijing and Tokyo pursue a strategy of competitive nationalist posturing to push other agendas, the prospect of confrontation appears just a little more likely.

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