The ceremonial visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Pearl Harbor, where he met with President Barack Obama and offered his “condolences,” comes amid rising tensions with Japan’s historic rival, China.
The two world leaders stood together at the USS Arizona Memorial, strewing flower petals into the harbor at a spot where hundreds of American service members died Dec. 7, 1941, in a Japanese attack.
Discussion of the actions of the Imperial Army during World War II remain heated in Japan. But Abe braved that political blowback in the interest of dramatically and visually underscoring his nation’s military alliance and close cultural ties to the United States.
There was no better place for Japan to send that message than at Pearl Harbor, and with the world stage destabilizing, American officials were happy to reciprocate.
Last month, Abe was the first foreign leader to personally visit President-elect Donald Trump after his election. It was a bold step for Japan, as it occurred in the immediate aftermath of a contentious and bitter election where Obama’s anointed successor, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote but still lost.
The meeting between Trump and Abe was carefully stage-managed to avoid the scrutiny of the American press corps. Photographs of Abe, Trump, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner conferring at Trump Tower were taken by a Japanese diplomat and distributed to news organizations afterward.
Still, Abe was the first world leader to get to Trump Tower and signify the importance he places on maintaining a good relationship with the U.S. as its leadership changes radically.
At Pearl Harbor on Tuesday, American dignitaries turned out in force, including Hawaii’s entire congressional delegation and a phalanx of military brass from throughout the Pacific Command.
“We need to pay attention to this part of the world,” said U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who was born in Japan.
The public demonstrations of friendship between Japan and the United States were intended for a global audience.
Both nations are looking warily at China.
The Chinese have built a network of artificial islands in the South China Sea in the past three years, equipping them with military-grade aircraft facilities, runways and telecommunications systems, essentially creating overseas forward bases for military action.
Two weeks ago, a Chinese warship brazenly seized an American underwater drone, and the Chinese took their time returning it.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington on Dec. 2, the emerging military threat from China was cited repeatedly by naval officers asking for the U.S. fleet to be expanded.
“For the first time in 25 years, there is competition for control of the seas,” said Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, commander of the Naval Surface Force for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
On Dec. 14, Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, traveled to Australia to give a speech that emphasized the U.S.’s continuing commitment to its allies in Asia in the face of what he called “an increasingly assertive China.”
“No one, including me, wants conflict,” Harris said. “I’ve been loud and clear that I prefer cooperation so we can collectively address our shared security challenges. But I’ve also been loud and clear that we will not allow the shared domains to be closed down unilaterally — no matter how many bases are built on artificial features in the South China Sea.”
Harris also sought to downplay the political divide in the U.S. during and following the election.
“In the United States, there is no such thing as a lame-duck commander in chief,” Harris said. “As I’ve done for almost eight years, I continue to serve President Obama, my only commander in chief. I’ll then serve President-elect Trump as my only commander in chief. And just as I have for President Obama, I’ll give President-elect Trump and Secretary of Defense-designate Jim Mattis my advice and recommendations on all issues concerning this alliance and this important region of the world.”
Harris, by the way, was right next to Obama and Abe when they tossed those flowers toward the sunken Arizona.
A few minutes later, Obama singled out Harris for particular attention. The president’s mention of Harris’ Japanese mother and a jocular reference to his Tennessee twang emphasized his affection for the 60-year-old admiral, who was born in Yokosuka, Japan.
By then, Harris was seated next to Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan and the daughter of former President John F. Kennedy.
Tension between the outgoing and incoming U.S. presidents was evident even at Pearl Harbor.
Obama used the forum to differentiate himself from Trump in a thinly veiled jab.
“Even when the tug of tribalism is most primal,” Obama said, “we must resist the urge to demonize those who are different.”
Trump is believed to have exacerbated tensions with China by speaking on the telephone with Taiwanese leaders, by calling China a trade cheater and by suggesting in a news interview that Japan and other countries should consider arming themselves with nuclear weapons for their own protection.
He has also publicly said that Japan and other U.S. allies should be paying more of the costs of their own defense.
Chinese media, meanwhile, harshly criticized Abe for making the trip to Pearl Harbor, with state-run China Daily calling it “pretentious.” Chinese officials have called for a public apology by Japan for the Japanese attack on Nanjing in 1937 and 1938, when more than 300,000 Chinese were killed.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at email@example.com.