Late last month, Chinese and North Korean leaders found themselves showered with an unexpected gift from Japan: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 “Class A” war criminals — the category reserved for political and military leaders prosecuted in 1946 for starting and waging war — and over 1,000 individuals convicted of lesser war crimes are commemorated. Mr. Abe’s homage to Japan’s war dead, in the court of world public opinion, smacks of denial of his nation’s wartime aggression — and has been widely condemned.
This impression only strengthens China’s hand in current disputes with Japan — and therefore also in its strategic competition with the United States. It also advances North Korea’s aim of driving wedges into the coalition of the United States, South Korea and Japan.
Mr. Abe likely calculated that he could reap domestic political advantage from nationalistic posturing without much consequence, as long as Japan continues its policy of quasi-pacifism under the American security umbrella. But he chose a particularly sensitive moment for his symbolic gesture. This pilgrimage comes just a month after China’s unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone over a chain of islands in the East China Sea claimed by China and administered by Japan.
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