The U.S. expression of disappointment over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in December reflected U.S. policymakers' "frustration" that such action could undermine Washington's efforts to ensure stability in Northeast Asia in collaboration with Japan and South Korea, a former Pentagon official said Thursday.
"I think the U.S. official expression of disappointment after the prime minister's visit was really in part out of frustration," Michele Flournoy, who was undersecretary of defense for policy in the first term of the administration of President Barack Obama, said in Tokyo.
Flournoy said the visit ran counter to Washington's strategic interest in ensuring "greater cooperation among two of our most important and closest allies, given the common challenges we face," in an apparent reference to an increasingly assertive China and North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs.
Despite such frustration, she said, "I think many Americans feel that now is the time to be thinking strategically, and looking to the future in this region, and making sure that we are doing everything we can to maintain the peace and stability that we've enjoyed here for some time."
Abe has explained that his visit to the Tokyo shrine honoring convicted war criminals along with the war dead was meant to be a way of reiterating that Japan will never again wage war. But China and South Korea, which regard Yasukuni as a symbol of Japanese militarism, have refused to accept Abe's stated intention.
Speaking at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Flournoy said Japan and the United States "have to take steps as a matter of priority to repair the Japan-South Korea relationship," which has been soured by differing perceptions of history and a dispute over a pair of South Korean-held but Japanese-claimed islets in the Sea of Japan.
"The U.S. certainly can and will hope (to) do what it can to support a strong trilateral relationship between the U.S., Japan and ROK through diplomacy and joint military exercises and so forth," she said, referring to the acronym of South Korea's official name, the Republic of Korea. "But this must be a priority for all of us."
Flournoy made the remarks a day before Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hold talks in Washington, at which regional issues such as China, North Korea and Japan-South Korea relations, as well as measures to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance including a planned trip by Obama to Japan in April, are likely to top the agenda.
Referring to "a rising China that at times seems determined to change the status quo incrementally and unilaterally over time," Flournoy said Japan "should ensure that its future actions are guided by the strategic imperative of greater solidarity among like-minded states," including South Korea, Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Abe has vowed to improve relations with South Korea, telling parliament Thursday that he will "not only just wait inside 'the door for dialogue' but go outside aggressively," a comment taken as a step forward from the oft-repeated phrase, "the door for dialogue is always open" with the leaders of China and South Korea.
Flournoy said Japan, the United States and other like-minded countries must "stand firm" against China's attempt to alter the status quo in the East and South China Seas.
She cited China's intrusions into Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands and the country's declaration of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea that covers the uninhabited islets administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan.
Moreover, China has indicated it may set up an ADIZ in the South China Sea where it is locked in territorial disputes with some ASEAN members, most notably the Philippines and Vietnam.
The former undersecretary of defense urged the countries involved to reinforce a rule-based order based on international law and make sure that they prevent such tensions from spiraling out of control.
Flournoy said the U.S. policy of strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is likely to remain intact "not only for this administration but future American administrations, whoever wins the 2016 (presidential) election."
"This is one of the few priorities that actually enjoy bipartisan support in the United States," she said.
"It's only reinforced by the ongoing challenges that are occurring in the international security environment, from the rise of new powers, to increased economic interdependence, to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to a more congested and contested global commons," she added.