While East Asia and Washington have focused in recent weeks on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, his critics have missed the successful strategic game that he is playing. Both media and foreign governments treated Mr. Abe's visit to the shrine, where 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined, as proof of his right-wing nationalism. But Mr. Abe has never made any secret of his conservatism. Rather, the December visit shows Mr. Abe is calculating that greater diplomatic tensions are worth risking for concrete gains in Japan's defense capabilities and security relationships.
First, Mr. Abe held fast to his foreign and security goals even as he tried to forge better working relations with Beijing and Seoul. Yet other than brief informal chats at the September G-20 summit, South Korea's President Park Geun-hye and China's President Xi Jinping have steadfastly refused to meet him formally. In November, moreover, the Chinese established a controversial air defense identification zone in the East China Sea that overlapped Japan's own air zone around the disputed Senkaku Islands. A year's worth of activity apparently convinced Mr. Abe that his energies would best be spent where a clear return on investment can be found.
The most important return was solidifying the U.S.-Japan alliance. Crucially, Mr. Abe secured the long-awaited approval to build a new airbase in Okinawa for U.S. Marines. This had become a major irritant to the U.S.-Japan alliance since 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan had upended an agreement to move the Marines out of their congested Futenma base. In addition, Mr. Abe also released a wise men's report that called for Japan to be able to exercise collective self-defense with other nations, for example, over sea lane security, something Washington has long desired.
Second, Mr. Abe has succeeded in deepening Japan's relationship with India. While Beijing and Seoul were excoriating his visit to Yasukuni, New Delhi announced Mr. Abe as the chief foreign guest at India's Republic Day military parade later this month. That follows on the heels of the visit of Japan's defense minister to New Delhi in early January. India looms increasingly large in Japan's calculations, both as a democratic partner and a strategic counterweight to China.
Just as importantly, Tokyo is making a major outreach to Southeast Asia. Many nations in that region have their own territorial disputes with China, and have felt Beijing's pressure in recent years. Mr. Abe has provided $19 billion in aid and loans while visiting all ten Southeast Asian nations in his first year in office. A clear component of his outreach is to improve defense communication and cooperation, a goal already sought by the Philippines, among others.
Internally, Mr. Abe continues to focus on making Japan a "normal" nation in security issues. He released the country's first national security strategy last year and set up a permanent version of a national security council. He is also moving forward on revising the ban on arms exports that has helped isolate the country's defense industry and prevented closer security ties with foreign nations.
Mr. Abe's calculations seem clear. He is playing a strategic game, willing to accept diplomatic criticism while making concrete improvements in Japan's security posture. He is even willing to let the Americans criticize him since he is giving them what they want, a new airbase, while tying Washington closer to Tokyo through military realignment. As for Beijing and Seoul, he seems perfectly happy to let them squawk, since it does little to interrupt his defense plans. The Yasukuni visit is best interpreted as part of a much larger reorientation of Japan's global role that Mr. Abe aims to achieve. This may be today's version of the "Japan that can say no," to adopt the famous saying of former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara.
What then should his neighbors and allies do? Mrs. Park of South Korea seems happy to explore closer ties with China, but Seoul's natural partner in Asia is the equally liberal Japan. It is in Seoul's long-term interest to figure out a way to put history behind it to improve relations with Japan, even as it is up to Tokyo to more fully and clearly make its regret and remorse over wartime atrocities known to Korea.
China will do well to understand that its actions have moved a large segment of the Japanese public away from their reflexive pacifism. Beijing's continued pressure on Japan and menacing military buildup is only pushing Tokyo in directions that will make China feel even less secure, not least due to a steady strengthening of the U.S.-Japan military alliance.
As for the U.S., Washington may not be happy with Mr. Abe's visit, but it approves of most of his defense and security goals. A more nuanced U.S. diplomatic policy would recognize Mr. Abe's Yasukuni visit for what it was, and not strain relations with Tokyo with opprobrium. During 2014, what will count will be the U.S.'s actions to maintain stability in Asia, not its diplomatic attempts to keep all sides happy.