News analysis

Ripple effect of Abe's Pearl Harbor visit

Surprise trip this month will boost US-Japan security alliance and send signal to Trump

•Japan's conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make a surprise visit to Pearl Harbor this month, in a move seen as a boost for the US-Japan security alliance.

That the visit, planned for Dec 26 and 27, comes weeks before US President Barack Obama is due to leave office, has also fuelled talk that Mr Abe is reciprocating Mr Obama's Hiroshima visit this May.

Tokyo, however, has taken pains to stress that the two trips are "not linked", and are gestures of how far the former foes have come in reconciling to become staunch allies.

The duo are the first incumbent leaders to make the visits, and analysts say this turns a new page on a security alliance that, while robust, has for years been weighed down by historical baggage.

Today marks 75 years to the day Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor in a surprise strike that propelled the United States into World War II. In 1945, the US dropped two nuclear bombs that pulverised Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nationalists in the US say the atomic bombings would not have occurred if Pearl Harbor had not been attacked in the first place. Those in Tokyo argue that the nuclear bombing of civilians is disproportionate in scale to the initial strike that had killed mainly soldiers.

Mr Obama met survivors when he was in Hiroshima, but did not apologise. Mr Abe, too, is unlikely to say sorry in Hawaii, where he will hold his last summit meeting with the outgoing US leader.

He said on Monday that the visit is to "mourn the souls of the victims (and) to express my resolve towards the future that the tragedy of wars should never be repeated again".

He added: "I would like to make our meeting in Hawaii an opportunity to review the past four years and disseminate to the world the significance of further reinforcing our bilateral alliance. The meeting will be the culmination of what we've been aiming to achieve."

The trip was agreed by the leaders on the sidelines of a summit in Peru last month, and comes as a surprise as Mr Abe had not made any such prior overtures. Standing next to Mr Obama in May, Mr Abe said he did not have plans to visit Pearl Harbor.

But observers say Tokyo's calculations changed with the election of Mr Donald Trump, who is due to be inaugurated on Jan 20.

Also, an aide to Mr Abe was yesterday quoted by Asahi Shimbun as saying: "Since Trump does not have much of a pacifist tone, a visit to Pearl Harbor would be impossible under a Trump administration. Unless he goes now, the Prime Minister would never be able to make a visit while he is still in office."

Mr Abe was the first foreign leader to meet Mr Trump after his election. Mr Trump had rattled Japan, one of the US' closest allies, after he criticised the East Asian nation for not contributing enough to bilateral security ties.

US politics expert Fumio Matsuo, a former Washington bureau chief with Kyodo News, told The Straits Times that the trip sends a signal to Mr Trump, who has questioned the Hiroshima visit by Mr Obama.

Mr Trump had tweeted in May: "Does President Obama ever discuss the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor while he's in Japan? Thousands of American lives lost."

Noting that a visit by a Japanese leader to Pearl Harbor has long been on the US wish list, Mr Matsuo added that the trip, too, will be part of Mr Obama's legacy.

Adding to the surprise of the visit is the fact of Mr Abe's conservative roots, though he has been taking a more conciliatory approach. In a speech to the US Congress last year, he expressed his "deepest remorse" and "sincere condolences" to Japan's wartime victims. He has avoided making visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine that honours Class A war criminals so as not to anger Beijing and Seoul.

Research fellow Ippeita Nishida at Tokyo think-tank Sasakawa Peace Foundation said: "Japan has been constantly criticised for not reflecting on past history.

"But Japan has a common objective of peace and security in East Asia. Through this historic trip, we can demonstrate to the world that we have overcome history."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2016, with the headline 'Ripple effect of Abe's Pearl Harbor visit'. Print Edition | Subscribe