Abe Stays Away From Tokyo War Shrine in Bid for Xi Summit

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stayed away from a Tokyo war shrine on the 69th anniversary of Japan‘s World War II defeat today, instead sending a donation as he seeks a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Two cabinet members paid their respects today at Yasukuni shrine, which is seen by many as a symbol of Japan’s past aggression in Asia as 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined there along with millions of war dead. Any visits by leading government officials rile China and South Korea, a country with a holiday today to mark the end of Japanese colonial rule.

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Abe hasn’t met Xi since taking office in December 2012 as ties between Asia’s two largest economies frayed over territorial and historical issues. By staying away, he may improve the odds of a meeting, while potentially sparking criticism from his nationalist supporters.

“Recently China-Japan relations have momentum toward improvement, the two foreign ministers met, and they are working hard to have a summit meeting in November,” said Liang Yunxiang, professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies.

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The two nations’ foreign ministers met in Myanmar last week, the first such meeting since Abe came to power, in a sign of progress toward a summit that Abe said he’d welcome at a regional economic forum in Beijing in November.

Cash Donation

Ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Koichi Hagiuda told reporters at Yasukuni that he delivered a donation to the shrine from Abe. While giving no reason for avoiding the shrine, Abe told Hagiuda to pledge eternal peace, the lawmaker said. After his December visit to Yasukuni, Abe stated that he went to honor the dead and did not intend to offend other countries.

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National Public Safety Commission Chairman Keiji Furuya and Internal Affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo visited today, as they did last year. Shindo told reporters he paid his respects with a feeling that war should never happen again.

For Koreans, “the shrine symbolized the brutality of Japanese rule and military expansion to the Koreans forced to fight for the emperor,” said Lee Won Deog, a professor of Japanese studies at Seoul‘s Kookmin University. “What Japanese leaders’ visits to the shrine mean to South Koreans is that Japan continues to overlook the pain it caused to its neighbors during its imperial expansion.”

Further straining ties, China and Japan are at odds over the sovereignty of a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea. Ships from both sides have been tailing one another around the islands since Japan bought three of them from a private landowner in September 2012.

Abe’s Actions

Dong Wang, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies at Peking University, is pessimistic that Japan will take a “clear and correct” position on historical issues as Abe is a “staunch ultra-nationalist.”

“The 15th of August anniversary is a very important time, a hallmark for us to observe and to watch and assess which direction Abe wants to take,” Wang said. The best we can hope for is a short, informal meeting between Xi and Abe, though this depends on Abe’s actions, he said.

The neighbors have economic motives for trying to improve ties, Peking University’s Liang said. China is Japan’s largest trading partner, with a total shipments between the countries last year reaching $343 billion.

“China’s economy is not that good, and if it continues to slow not only Japan will suffer but China will too,” said Liang. “And now Chinese diplomacy has some problems, including tense relations with South-East Asian countries. So they want to improve the foreign affairs environment.”

U.S. Allies

South Korea shares China’s anger with Japan over what it regards as a failure to sufficiently atone for wartime actions such as the military’s sexual abuse of women. Japan and South Korea are also embroiled in a dispute over a set of islands in the Sea of Japan.

In a televised speech today to commemorate the end of Japan’s 35-year occupation, South Korean President Park Geun Hye said Japan must try to heal past scars, urging “forward-looking steps on sex slaves” while the remaining survivors are still alive.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters today that he hoped Japan would next year issue a forward-looking statement on World War II to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the conflict.

Those tensions are also affecting U.S. foreign policy in the region, creating a divide between the U.S.’s closest allies in Asia at a time the administration of President Barack Obama is trying to build a united front in the face of a more assertive China.

Abe will later today mark the anniversary at a ceremony at the Budokan sports arena.

To contact the reporters on this story: Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo at ireynolds1@bloomberg.net; Henry Sanderson in Beijing at hsanderson@bloomberg.net; Maiko Takahashi in Tokyo at mtakahashi61@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Davis at abdavis@bloomberg.net Andy Sharp

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Abe Stays Away From Tokyo War Shrine in Bid for Xi Summit
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