There was a steady stream of visitors to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine this past Sunday afternoon, blanketed in snow from the biggest fall in Tokyo for 45 years as the winter sun sank low. It’s a solemn place, the country’s national war memorial. People paying respects washed their hands using traditional metal cups from a large, raised communal bath; approaching the shrine through a 15-metre high traditional wooden Shinto arch, they bowed, tossed a coin, clapped their hands slowly twice and bowed again. All ages, all types; regular Japanese, many returning from voting in the city’s gubernational poll.

The chill in the air matched the one that swept through the corridors of Washington in December when Shinzo Abe became the first sitting Japanese Prime Minister in nine years to pay homage at the shrine, as Japan bit back at China. It was a chill that should also have been felt in Canberra.

Yasukuni, meaning “for the peace of the country”, was built in 1869 by the Emperor Meiji to honour those who died overthrowing the feudal Shogunate, signalling the beginning of modern Japan. Problematically, in 1978 the names of 14 Class-A war criminals from World War II, including General Hideki Tojo, were added to the shrine’s honour list. Since then the shrine has been a source of extreme consternation to China and South Korea, as well as other Asian nations that had wartime atrocities inflicted upon them by Japan. Australia falls within that group, so it’s noteworthy the Abbott government made not a single public comment on the visit. Our allegiances are now all too vividly drawn, with Japan ranked as our No. 1 regional friend.

Yet now the die is cast, the Abe problem continues to grow due to his recent stacking of Japanese national broadcaster NHK with his right-wing allies. One new board member, writer Naoki Hyakuta, has claimed the infamous “rape” of the Chinese city of Nanking, where up to 300,000 people were slaughtered by the Japanese, never occurred. This has only amplified Washington’s anger with its problem ally. A United States embassy spokesman in Tokyo said on Friday:

“These suggestions are preposterous. We hope that people in positions of responsibility in Japan and elsewhere would seek to avoid comments that inflame tensions in the region.”

But still, not a peep from Canberra.

Abe will only be emboldened with his choice for Toyko’s governor, the pro-nuclear Yoichi Masuzoe, winning election on Sunday. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni appeared to be especially aimed at a China whose foreign policy has become noticeably more aggressive in recent years — in particular towards Japan. It has been stepped up to a more sophisticated level by Xi Jinping. Son of the ruling Communist Party’s most revered revolutionary general, his rapid consolidation of power inside the organisation since he was named Chinese Communist Party secretary general in November 2012 — as well as head of the party’s Central Military Commission — has made him China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping.

China has started to “make the crucial shift from a government that accepts the existing rules to one that seeks to shape the world according to its own national interests”, as former Financial Times Beijing bureau chief Geoff Dyer puts in his new book The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China. This has been clear in China’s relentless push against its hated former occupier Japan in a tussle over rocky islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China.

Japan baiting and undersea resources aside, the relentless propulsion into its maritime littoral is part of a three-way push by China for fresh trade routes that lie at the centre of a foreign policy challenge that has taking fuller shape under Xi. The others are in central Asia, where it is busy stitching up alliances with the “stans” — and through the jungled mountains on its southern borders into south-east Asia.

“Australia, long an arm’s length observer of the region’s most problematic relationship, has quite dramatically and unexpectedly taken sides.”

Paranoia is hardly a rare commodity in Beijing; fearing containment by the US, China has sought alliances with nations the US finds most problematic. Xi’s first overseas visit as leader was to Russia, and he was one of only a handful of leaders of prominent nations to attend the opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics at the weekend. Signalling Japan is determined not to be shoved aside by its neighbour, Abe was also there. China is drawing ever closer to Pakistan, enemy of its other great rival, India. Then there’s Xi and his second-in-command Li Keqiang’s charm offensive in south-east Asia these past six months, something Abe has done, too, visiting every country in the Association of South East Asian Nations since he won office in July 2012.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s plan to visit Japan, South Korea and China in late March/early April — most likely in that order, but certainly Japan first — will be wrapped in the cloak of trade and economics. There will certainly be plenty of that: the government has vowed to sign long overdue free trade agreements with the three north Asian economic giants within a year of attaining office. South Korea has been ticked off, and Japanese sources say bureaucrats are working overtime so Abbott has something to announce when he lands in Tokyo.

But Australia, long an arm’s length observer of the region’s most problematic relationship, has quite dramatically and unexpectedly taken sides. For Australia, its ally the US and Japan, China’s more confident foreign policy and determination to bend the rules to its advantage presents an increasingly thorny problem: how to find a way to accommodate a new power in the region without ceding too much or triggering a crisis.

China hit back hard at Japan after Abe’s shrine visit, dispatching its eloquent, besuited ambassadors around the world to plead its case in public. In recent weeks the US has clearly signalled it has had enough of keeping quiet about China’s constant pushing of the envelope.

On Friday, after meeting with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the US “neither recognises nor accepts” an air defence zone China has declared in East China Sea. On Thursday he begins his fifth trip to Asia — after just one year in the job — visiting Seoul, Beijing and Jakarta.

South Korea further complicates north Asia. It’s friends with the US (which has 28,500 troops stationed there) and Australia, but there is a deep mutual antipathy between it and Japan. In his Friday comments, Kerry also made it clear he wanted Japan to play nice with South Korea. That won’t be an easy friendship to force.

China’s foreign policy remains a work in progress, but its intention seems clearer in a region that appears suddenly less stable — with political turmoil roiling Thailand and Cambodia and Indonesia facing an uncertain election — than it has for some time. Australia’s position was always going to require delicate management; now with the US-inspired lurch towards Japan, that position has become more invidious. Soon, the US will move hundreds more troops to its marine base in Darwin. And who knows how many more little surprises Abe has up his sleeve?

Given the various players in an increasingly difficult strategic game, Australia’s citizens will be hoping the Prime Minister has a plan, having already shown his hand.

Peter Fray

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