The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
According to the New York Times, U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima during this month’s G-7 summit in Japan. His doing so will be a welcome gesture that would encourage the nuclear nonproliferation regime, help strengthen the U.S.-Japanese alliance, and aid Washington’s rebalance to Asia, which depends on strong partnerships with regional allies. The timing couldn’t be better: all of those initiatives have been challenged by North Korea’s recent nuclear tests and China’s increasing military assertiveness in the South China Sea.
A number of different groups, including U.S. veterans, Washington Republicans, and regional powers in Asia, fear that a presidential trip to Hiroshima, no matter how carefully choreographed, will be taken as an official state apology for the U.S. nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II—something that politicians on both sides of the aisle have been loath to give. The reasoning is understandable: it would be difficult to visit such an emotionally and historically charged site without expressing remorse simply by being present, and even the appearance of an apology would dishonor the sacrifice of the tens of thousands of American soldiers who died in the Pacific War.
It could also give credence to Japanese ultranationalists who seek to revise Japan’s World War II history. Indeed, since the war, Japan has struggled to come to terms with its own wartime activities. For example, Abe’s trip to the United States in May 2015 was marked by omission and equivocations during his speeches on Japanese war crimes during World War II. Japanese ultranationalists have sought to exonerate Japan from the Nanjing massacre, a mass murder and rape that killed anywhere from 40,000 to 300,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians; the Bataan Death March, in which Japanese soldiers forced U.S. and Filipino troops to march 65 miles to prison camps in the Philippines; and the comfort women system, the institutionalized prostitution of women and children in Japanese-occupied territories. Abe himself has sought to soften the language used to describe the comfort women system on multiple occasions—asking the U.N. to retract a part of its 1996 report on wartime brothels, and asking officials to persuade textbook publishers to revise passages about the practice.
It is important that an Obama visit to Hiroshima send the right message, highlighting the beginning of a new chapter in U.S.-Japanese relations above all else. Therefore it is important that both sides craft a narrative that dispels as much partisanship as possible. To do so, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should attend memorial services for the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks later this year as a show of goodwill in return for any similar U.S. gesture. For Abe, this would have a number of strategic benefits.
Attending the Pearl Harbor memorial services would also help Abe deflect attention from some of his more controversial actions, such as his December 2013 visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine. Abe ignored stern warnings from the United States and touched off a historical row with China and South Korea by visiting the memorial to Japan’s war dead, which also honors convicted war criminals who committed atrocities against Chinese and Korean citizens. Beijing and Seoul lodged diplomatic protests, and officials in China summoned the country’s ambassador, Masato Kitera. It could also help silence the criticism that Abe encountered when he convened a government panel in 2014 that needlessly reexamined Japan’s landmark apology to comfort women in 1993. The official purpose was to take a thorough look at the research and diplomacy that led to its creation, but the action created the perception that Tokyo wanted to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the policy, even though Japan said it would not recall the statement.
Abe has recently taken a more conciliatory stance toward Japan’s World War II legacy, however. After decades of negotiations, Japan agreed to pay South Korea $8.3 million this past December to establish a foundation to support former comfort women. At the signing agreement, Abe said, “We must not let this problem drag on into the next generation.” During an address to a joint session of Congress last April, Abe said, “On behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II.” A visit to Pearl Harbor would build on this momentum, and would give Abe an opportunity to provide historical context for Obama’s visit; he would be able to convey that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not happen in isolation, and would show a stronger awareness of Japan’s painful past. This visit would also help demonstrate to the world that Japan is more committed to promoting peace than in revising its own history.
Such a visit could also help make Japan’s rejuvenation of its security services more palatable to its neighbors. Japan reinterpreted Article 9 of its constitution in September 2015 to allow its Self-Defense Forces, which were previously limited to defending the homeland, to aid the United States and other allies if they were under attack. Beijing and Seoul initially greeted this policy shift with apprehension and ambivalence. For his part, Abe has insisted that this decision was meant to allow Japan to play a more central role in the world as a “proactive contributor to peace.” But with lasting memories of Japan’s aggression in World War II, its neighbors are more likely to accept that role if Abe continues to show that he can face Japan’s history without rancor or reinterpretation.
Finally, visits to Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor would emotionally reinforce the U.S.-Japanese alliance. The partnership is integral to regional security, particularly as North Korea continues its pursuit of nuclear weapons and China increases its military presence in the South China Sea. Obama and Abe can send a powerful message that Washington and Tokyo stand shoulder to shoulder against the challenges. By standing together to confront their countries’ painful shared past, they can also set an example for an East Asia alternately roiled and paralyzed by historical disputes.
Aside from the geopolitical implications, mutual visits would be the right thing for both leaders to do. Every year, there are fewer survivors of Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombs. Obama and Abe should honor the victims of both tragedies while there is still time.
By using his visit to focus on the future and our shared imperative to work for peace, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Hiroshima in April demonstrated that it is possible for leaders and diplomats to reflect on a great human tragedy without apologizing for it. Obama and Abe should follow suit. In doing so, they could help set a foreign policy vision for the United States, Japan, and East Asia that will endure well after they are both out of office.