The key announcement made earlier this week by Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima agreeing to the relocation of the United States military base at Futenma to nearby Henoko, has been hailed as a “critical milestone” by U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

The development is valuable to the Obama administration as it provides a key missing piece in its pivot to Asia Pacific: a replacement base for the Futenma air base, which is scheduled to close within a decade. Japan and other allies are crucial to the success of this U.S. strategy, both by enhancing the country’s military presence in Asia Pacific, and by increasing burden sharing of the costs of a U.S.-led security order in the region.

Simultaneously, Friday’s decision represents a political win for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as it underpins the country’s U.S. alliance at a moment of major tension in Asia. The timing of Mr. Nakaima’s announcement seems to have been choreographed with Mr. Abe, especially coming just 24 hours after the Prime Minister’s controversial visit to the Yasukuni shrine. The shrine, where 14 high-ranking military leaders convicted as war criminals are honoured along with around 2.5 million other Japanese men, women and children who died in wars, is perceived by many domestic and foreign critics as symbolic of the Japan’s wartime excesses.

Mr. Abe’s visit, the first by any sitting Japanese Prime Minister for seven years, predictably drew foreign criticism, though Mr. Abe depicted it as an anti-war gesture intended not to hurt feelings in neighbouring countries. It particularly infuriated Beijing and Seoul, which have repeatedly asserted that Tokyo has done too little to atone for its wartime abuses.

The Obama administration also expressed “disappointment” after previous proclamations from U.S. officials that visits to Yasukuni by senior Japanese politicians should be avoided. Knowing this would be the case, it appears likely that Mr. Abe calculated that the base decision would at least partially blunt Washington’s reprimand and give him the political space to make the visit. For Mr. Abe, this was an important trip on the one year anniversary of his election, which will have pleased many Japanese nationalists, a vital political constituency for him. This underlines the importance to Mr. Abe’s conservative agenda of emphasising Japanese pride in its past, of which his shrine visit is a part.

In the broader context of current tensions in Asia, it is also possible that Mr. Abe anticipated there was little to lose, diplomatically, by making the visit now, especially with Beijing having recently made provocations towards Tokyo. From this calculus, the marginal diplomatic costs of the shrine trip are low with bilateral relations with China already in the deep freeze.

Nonetheless, there is real danger that the episode will make the regional atmosphere even more unpredictable. Diplomatic temperature is so high at the moment is largely due to the succession of incidents in recent weeks, including Mr. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni; China’s unilateral declaration of an air “self-defence identification zone”, and a counter-move from South Korea; China’s refusal to participate in a U.N. arbitration process over a territorial conflict with the Philippines; and the near-miss of a Chinese naval vessel and a U.S. warship in the South China Sea.

Key external parties are urging calm and restraint on all sides as recent events indicate a growing possibility of further escalation. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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