TOKYO, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Japan's main opposition party leader and possible next prime minister, Shinzo Abe, visited a controversial shrine for war dead on Wednesday, a move likely to further strain relations with neighbours China and South Korea.
Sino-Japanese relations have soured sharply since last month when a row over disputed islands led to violent anti-Japanese protests across China and badly hurt trade.
Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, seen by many in the region as a symbol of Japan's war-time militarism, may fan anti-Japanese sentiment in China and North and South Korea, where memories of brutal Japanese occupation run deep.
The former prime minister, elected last month as the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader, is in a pivotal position to become the next prime minister after general elections expected within months, which the ruling Democrats behind in the polls.
Fourteen Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are honoured at the shrine along with other war dead.
"On occasion of the autumn festival, I visited as LDP leader in order to express reverence for the spirits of the war dead who gave their lives for their country," Abe told reporters.
When asked whether he would visit the shrine if he becomes prime minister, Abe declined to comment.
"Given Japan's current relations with China as well as South Korea, I'd better not say whether I would visit or not when I become prime minister," he said.
China's immediate reaction was muted. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the Yasukuni issue was one of "whether or not Japan can correctly recognise and deal with its militaristic history of invasion" and that Japan should respect its promises on historical issues.
Despite his hawkish stance, Abe, 58, stayed away from the shrine when he was prime minister for about a year to September 2007.
That helped repair Sino-Japanese ties. Pilgrimages by his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, to Yasukuni during his 2001-2006 term in office fuelled anger in both China and South Korea.
Japan's ties with South Korea, where resentment over its 1910-1945 colonisation of the peninsula remains strong, have also worsened after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited an island claimed by both countries in August.
Abe is a grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime cabinet member who was convicted as a war criminal by an Allied tribunal after World War Two but later became prime minister.