The 21st century has often been quoted as the century in which the balance of world power will shift from the west to the east. There’s good reason to believe it, too. But it’s also clear that there are huge fracture lines that threaten stability in the region; from where I’m sitting in Jeju, I have a ring-side seat from which to watch the posturings and manoeuvrings of the countries on this edge of the pacific.
So, China has declared an extended air defence zone which has caused neighbouring countries to object, and caused South Korea to extend its own zone so that it overlaps the Chinese one; China is in conflict with various countries over the rights to areas of the South China Sea; South Korea and Japan have a long-standing and deeply-felt dispute over the islands of Dokdo/Takeshima (depending on your point of view) and the name of the East Sea/Sea of Japan (again, depending on your point of view).
And now there are some extra ingredients to be added to the mix.
Firstly, The Guardian reports that China have just completed sea trials of their first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. The trials included an incident in which there was a near collision between a US warship and one of the ships accompanying the Liaoning. Naturally, both sides blamed the other.
Next, the English-language Korea Herald newspaper reports that North Korea is struggling to stem the flow of defectors, trying to escape “chronic food shortages and harsh political oppression”, following the execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle. The only route out of the country is into China, and thence to a South-east Asian country. Given that the Chinese authorities cooperate with North Korea in returning refugees, it seems like a desperate gamble for anyone to take.
In the context of local tensions and instability, Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, decided to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on Boxing Day. This is the place where 14 Class-A war criminals are honoured.
That looks like madness to me. Whatever Prime Minister Abe’s reasons, the strong condemnation from Japan’s neighbours and the rest of the world is completely predictable, isn’t it? Given the inability of the region to put the horrors of the 20th century behind it, and the fact that this seems to be one of the underlying reasons for the poor international relationships here, why oh why did he think that visiting the shrine was appropriate?
I wonder if there’s something in a report by the BBC that gives a clue? It suggests that Prime Minister Abe believes that the “peace constitution” put in place in Japan after the war was imposed by the US and is a humiliation; Prime Minister Abe hopes that his actions will advance his goal of reforming the constitution.
Prime Minister Abe is leading his country at a time in which the economic and military status quo is shifting. He needs to respond to the actions of his neighbours in an appropriate way. I just don’t think his visit to Yasukuni is at all helpful.