China-Japan summit may hinge on marking of WWII defeat at war shrine

A bronze statue of Omura Masujiro, Japan's vice-minister of war who led the Westernization of the military during the Meiji Restoration can be seen on the main walkway leading to Yasukuni Shrine. Masujiro died by the sword of disgruntled samurai.

TOKYO — Any chance that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will get his wish for a summit with China may hinge on the commemoration of the 69th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II at a Tokyo war shrine.

Yasukuni 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 high- ranking government officials to the site rankle China and South Korea, a country that held a holiday Thursday to mark the end of Japanese colonial rule 69 years ago.

Abe has a choice: Visit and risk sparking protests from China and South Korea as he did when he went to the shrine in December, or stay away and raise the odds of a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping while angering his nationalist base. 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.

"Abe won't go on August 15" and this should improve prospects for a summit, said Liang Yunxiang, professor at Peking University's School of International Studies. "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."

The two nations' foreign ministers met in Myanmar on Aug. 10, the first such meeting since Abe came to power, in a sign of progress toward a meeting that Abe said he'd welcome at a regional economic forum in Beijing in November.

After his December visit to Yasukuni, Abe publicly stated that he went to honor the dead and did not intend to offend other countries. While Abe stayed away from Yasukuni on Aug. 15 last year, making a cash donation to the site instead, three of his ministers did attend, riling the Chinese and Koreans. National Public Safety Commission Chairman Keiji Furuya signaled he will pay his respects there again this year, Kyodo news reported. The offices of the other two, Administrative Reform Minister Tomomi Inada and Internal Affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo, declined to comment in response to queries.

"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 means 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.

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."

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. 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 Obama administration is trying to build a united front in the face of a more assertive China.

Japan's prime ministers generally mark Aug. 15 by attending annual ceremonies at the Budokan sports arena and the Chidorigafuchi cemetery that houses the remains of unidentified soldiers.

South Korean presidents speak at public events commemorating Independence Day, often commenting on relations with Japan.

Reported with assistance from Sam Kim in Seoul and Henry Sanderson in Beijing.

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