By Prof K.V. Kesavan
Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was given a rousing reception at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, (CSIS) Washington DC, on February 22, 2013. Coming straight from the White House after having crucial talks with President Barack Obama , Abe was looking quite upbeat. “I am back and so shall Japan be,” said Abe, addressing a distinguished audience. He also stated that “Japan is not and will never be a Tier two nation”. This statement was in response to a query raised by Richard Armitage, Joseph Nye and others in a joint report whether Japan would end up becoming a Tier two nation.
Abe’s visit to Washington DC drew more than the usual attention for obvious reasons. It was his first official visit to the US after assuming office in December 2012. Even though he wanted to go to the US earlier in January, President Obama’s busy schedule before and after his second inauguration did not make that possible. In a way, this was the first time both Abe and Obama met in their present official capacities. Second, following his massive victory in the December Lower House election, Abe was exuding much greater self-confidence than many of the preceding Japanese prime ministers whose political strength was very fragile. The summit meeting provided a good opportunity for Abe to apprise the US President about the rapidly changing security situation in East Asia. The fact that Abe and his cabinet colleagues had already visited almost all ASEAN countries and Australia had placed him in a vantage position to talk to Obama about the Asian security situation and how Japan could contribute to strengthen US pivot to Asia.
One chief difference Abe recognized was the absence of Hillary Clinton who during her four-year stint as the US Secretary of State articulated American vision on the need to rebalance the security situation in Asia. The appointment of John Kerry as her successor did raise some scepticism as to whether he would be able to carry forward US policies with the same vigour and speed as before under Hillary Clinton. The media, however, carried positive reports on his first talks with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kashida. As for the US side, the Obama administration attached considerable importance to Abe’s visit because of its belief that he would stay in power for a long time given his present rising popularity in Japan. Assuming that he also wins the 2013 July Upper House election, it should be possible for Abe to set a long-term bilateral agenda on matters like economy and security.
Abe’s objectives: One major objective of Abe in undertaking the trip to Washington was to demonstrate to the people of Japan as well to others that US-Japan alliance was as strong as ever. There was a perception on both sides of the Pacific Ocean that the alliance had suffered during the administration of the Democratic Party of Japan -2009-12. The DPJ that came to power with a promise to pursue its alliance with the US on the basis of autonomy and equality badly messed up its policy on the Futenma base issue which led to the resignation of Yukio Hatoyama in 2010. This was followed by a period of lull until the Fukushima triple tragedy which provided an opportunity for the US to conduct its operation Tomodachi, which in a way revitalised the bilateral relations. Though the US was somewhat satisfied with the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, his tenure was too short to fully repair the bilateral ties. The alliance needed to be redefined in the midst of several developments in the security scenario of the Asia Pacific. Abe’s visit came in the wake of North Korea’s intransigence on its nuclear and missile technology policies. Its missile test in December 2012 followed by its third nuclear test on 26 January 2013 were criticised not only by Japan and its allies, but also by China.
The second item on his agenda was how to address the growing military assertiveness of China and in particular its regular naval and air forays into the territorial waters and air apace of Japan. Talking to Washington Post on the eve of his visit to the US, he stated that China, in its quest for natural resources, is using coercion and intimidation both in the South China Sea and the East China Sea and encouraging an educational system that emphasises patriotism. To him, “teaching patriotism also means teaching anti-Japanese sentiment.” Abe charged China with deliberately raking up territorial issues because the ruling establishment “uses them to mobilise domestic support”.
What did Abe achieve in his talks with Obama? Except for a very short joint statement focused only on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, there was no other announcement involving policy changes on any important subject. Many were surprised not to see any reference to the still unresolved Futenma base controversy. But the press briefings given by the two leaders as well as others indicated the subjects that were discussed by the two sides. First and foremost, Abe’s economic programme to revitalise the Japanese economy – he calls it Abenomics — was fully appreciated by the US side. President Obama himself has been addressing numerous economic challenges at home to put the US economy on a growth trajectory. Calling the expansion of economic growth as number one priority, Obama talked about the need to undertake steps for promoting trade and commerce between the two countries. Secondly, both leaders recognised the role of their security alliance as the ‘central foundation’ of their regional security interests in the Asia-Pacific. In this context, both discussed the threats posed by the North Korean missile technology and nuclear policies. Expressing their strong opposition to the North Korean nuclear test conducted on 26 January, both leaders decided to take further strong sanctions against North Korea and get the Security Council to pass yet another strong resolution calling for international penalties.
On the controversial Senkaku islands’ issue, which has seriously strained the Sino-Japanese ties during the last several years, Abe wanted to be assured of the full American support as per the provisions of the bilateral security alliance. While Washington has remained somewhat neutral on the question of Senkaku’s sovereignty, it has supported Japan’s position since it enjoys the administrative control of the islands. Former Secretary of State Hillary’s forthright opposition to any Chinese attempt to change Japan’s control was appreciated by Tokyo. However, many in the US are also interested in seeing that “cooler heads” will finally prevail in both countries to avoid hostilities from breaking out. Even Prime minister Abe in his major speech at the CSIS indicated that he “has no intention of climbing up the escalation ladder” and the “doors are always open on my side for the Chinese leaders.”
One concrete outcome of the bilateral talks was that the US was able to get Japan closer to making a commitment to the Trans Pacific Cooperation Agreement which the US has been advocating since 2011. The TPP has been a contentious subject among the major political parties of Japan. Though former prime minister Yoshihiko Noda seemed to support the TPP, his Party ( DPJ ) was badly divided on the question. Similarly, Abe’s LDP is also divided on the issue because of the opposition stemming from the powerful agriculture lobby within the party. The LDP did not make any commitment to the agreement in its electoral plank last December. But the Obama administration considers TPP as an important element of its Asian pivot policy. Both Obama and Abe managed to issue a brief joint statement which stressed that if Japan joined the TPP negotiations, “all goods would be subject to negotiations” and that Japan “would join others in achieving a comprehensive, high-standard agreement …” It also assured that there would not be any need for Japan to make “a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs upon joining the TPP negotiations.” The joint statement has opened the doors for Japan and now it is up to Abe to mould a political consensus within the country. Since the July Upper House election is very crucial to him, he will steer a careful course that would please the US as well as safeguard his electoral fortunes.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation. He is presently at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington D.C.)
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