A series of blunt statements from U.S. officials have left no doubt that Washington blames China’s maritime expansionism for rising tensions in Asia. Now America’s main ally in the region needs to hear a similarly forthright message.
Japan had been clamoring for the U.S. to speak out more forcefully after China imposed an “air-defense identification zone” over a set of islands claimed by both countries. Officials in Tokyo have warned that any hint of daylight between Americans and Japanese only encourages further bullying from the mainland. For that same reason, U.S. officials have tempered their criticism of statements and actions by Japanese leaders that irk China, not to mention other victims of Japanese aggression during World War II.
This circumspection is becoming counterproductive. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has visited the deeply controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors, along with millions of fallen soldiers from various conflicts, 14 Class A war criminals from World War II. Abe went to Yasukuni even after Vice President Joe Biden quietly urged him not to. Meanwhile, Abe allies are busily trying to rewrite textbooks to downplay Japan’s wartime brutality.
The U.S. should push back, and less gently than usual. President Obama’s trip to Asia in April is an opportunity for the White House not only to reaffirm its disapproval of Chinese adventurism, but also to make clear that Abe’s provocations are threatening stability in the region and damaging the U.S.-Japan alliance. Voters threw out Abe once before when he let nationalist obsessions distract him from minding the economy. Sustained domestic pressure is needed to rein him in again.
Abe is not necessarily wrong to want to make Japan a more muscular nation—to rejuvenate its economy, open up its society, and normalize its self-defense forces. A more robust Japanese military could play a bigger role in promoting global and regional stability—whether through antipiracy patrols or peacekeeping missions—and come to the defense of its allies. Inflaming Chinese and Korean sensitivities helps achieve none of those goals.