China has declared Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe an unwelcome visitor following his recent visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. When asked whether Chinese leaders would listen to his explanations for the shrine visit in person, a Foreign Ministry spokesman ruled out the possibility by saying that Abe has "shut the door" on dialogue.
China is not alone. The U.S. State Department also expressed disappointment at Abe's visit to the Tokyo shrine, which honors fallen soldiers alongside several high-level officials executed for war crimes after World War II. Given the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army under their leadership, the outrage of countries that fought against Japanese aggression was understandable.
Before making his decision to pay homage to the shrine, Abe must have been aware of the consequences. Previous shrine visits by elected officials invariably drew international condemnation. They were deemed as attempts to whitewash history and as appeals to right-wing conservatives who refuse to show remorse for Japan's aggressive past.
The fact that Abe disregarded international opposition shows that the Japanese prime minister pays little concern toward the feelings of China or other nations. The visit aggravated tensions caused by Abe's hard-line stance toward the China-Japan row over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands and his vows to amend Japan's pacifist Constitution. This has given the international community cause for concern about a possible resurrection of Japan's right wing, a dangerous trend that may destabilize the country and the region.
Despite its condemnation of Abe's visit, China has never intended to make its troubled history with Japan a barrier to cooperation. Instead, Beijing has long made it clear that it is willing to pursue an all-round relationship with Japan provided that Tokyo deals with history honestly. The two countries normalized diplomatic ties in 1972 based on a joint communiqué in which Japan acknowledged its war responsibility. Progress in bilateral relations, however, is often disrupted as the Japanese Government vacillates on its own perception of history.
At a time when China-Japan relations have hit a low point, there is still a positive side. Notably, China has been Japan's top trade partner since 2007, while Japan is China's fifth biggest trade partner. The Chinese people have become increasingly conscious of the complexity of China-Japan relations and will not vent their indignation recklessly. It is hoped that these positives will contribute to an eventual turnaround. But long-term stability in bilateral relations will not materialize until Tokyo truly repents for the colonialism and aggression against China and the region in the past.