A Shinto priest, right, leads Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, center, as he visits the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Photographer:  Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images
A Shinto priest, right, leads Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, center, as he visits the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Photographer: Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images

There is never a good time for Japan’s leader to visit the Yasukuni shrine, a controversial memorial to Japan’s war dead. For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to have gone this week is especially inflammatory.

Ever since 14 war criminals were “enshrined” at Yasukuni in 1978, visits by Japanese officials have rightly infuriated Japan’s neighbors, who suffered brutal occupation during World War II. That’s why Japanese emperors have not set foot in the Tokyo shrine ever since, and why Abe did not go during his first stint as prime minister in 2006-2007 nor since returning to office a year ago. He deserved praise for this restraint, more than he ever received from leaders in Beijing and Seoul.

By visiting the shrine on Dec. 26, however, Abe lost any credit he might otherwise have earned. He did so just as Japan appeared to have regained the moral high ground in northeast Asia -- thanks to the equally confrontational behavior of his counterpart in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping.

By unilaterally declaring a wide “air-defense identification zone” across the East China Sea, including over various islands and rocks claimed by Japan and South Korea, Xi has revived fears of China as a bullying hegemon. Earlier this month, Japan announced an increase in defense spending and a more aggressive defense strategy without eliciting a peep of protest outside of China. Had Japan made its announcement this week, the reaction would be quite different.

What could Abe -- or Xi, for that matter -- possibly be thinking? An optimist might argue that the two Asian leaders are just being strategic. Both have introduced ambitious and difficult economic restructuring programs; perhaps the theory is that by appeasing hard-liners now, they will forestall opposition on other fronts later. More likely, both men see a more assertive foreign policy as a natural and necessary part of their nations’ economic resurgence.

They are wrong: The one threatens the other. Thus far, in both Japan and China, structural reforms are nothing more than talk. The challenges each economy faces today are no smaller than they were at the beginning of 2013. Just in the last few weeks, Chinese leaders have confronted an interbank cash crunch and a major bankruptcy that have sent tremors through the financial system. Although massive monetary easing has driven down the value of the yen and driven up the profits of Japanese exporters, it hasn’t put more money into the pockets of Japanese workers or the tills of stores and restaurants. Confrontation abroad only distracts much-needed energy and attention in both Tokyo and Beijing.

Nor has the aggressive posturing achieved much in geopolitical terms for either country. China’s air zone was meant in part to push back against U.S. military dominance in the Pacific. Since its declaration, the U.S. has in fact reinvigorated its “pivot” to Asia. Visiting American officials now find ready audiences and hands outstretched for the tens of millions in U.S. security aid on offer.

Japan has been gratified by the U.S.’s robust response to China’s maneuvers. U.S. officials, however, have repeatedly underscored that they expect all sides in the region to work toward lowering tensions and are not pleased with Abe’s willful disregard. Relations between Japan and fellow U.S. ally South Korea, which had shown signs of improvement, have now returned to limbo. Chances of coordinated action to deal with an increasingly unpredictable North Korea have crumbled.

Contrary to what Xi and Abe may intend, neither leader is making his nation any stronger with his aggressive posturing. They’re only making the region more dangerous for themselves -- and for the rest of the world.

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