China‘s Communist leaders believe they can exploit former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe‘s assassination and use it as a tool to blunt anti-communist sentiment in Japan and marginalize Abe‘s allies, such as the Unification Church, according to a former high-level U.S. official and renowned China specialist.

Michael Pillsbury, an analyst who has advised nearly every U.S. president since Richard Nixon, told an international conference in South Korea on Friday that Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Japanese Communist Party both believe they can use the Abe assassination — and the gunman’s claimed grievances with the Unification Church — to smear the church‘s reputation, denigrate Abe‘s legacy, and compromise religious freedom in Japan and across the region.

Mr. Pillsbury and numerous other prominent U.S. political and religious figures spoke at Friday’s event, which centered on threats to religious freedom around the world, including those posed by communist forces in Asia. The aftermath of Abe‘s assassination at a campaign rally this summer has proven a continuing political controversy for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“Xi Jinping wants to exploit Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s tragic assassination on July 8 and demonize Abe’s allies, including the Unification Church and the Liberal Democratic Party, especially the Abe faction,” Mr. Pillsbury said.

“It is obvious why China also wants to undermine the memory of Abe: He was the most anti-Chinese Communist Party prime minister in Japanese history,” he said. “The Japanese Communist Party not only attacks the Abe wing of the LDP but also the work of the Unification Church in Japan and around the world. China attacks the Unification Church at the same time it attacks everything Abe worked for.”