FPI Bulletin: Mr. Abe Returns to Washington

February 22, 2013

From FPI Executive Director Christopher J. Griffin

The inaugural meeting between President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may not result in major deliverables, but it is an opportunity for the two leaders to build a personal relationship and describe a positive agenda for the alliance.  Abe’s return to power (he previously served in 2006-2007) has reinvigorated Japanese politics, and the United States should seize this opportunity to advance our security and economic partnership with a keystone ally.
What Japan Wants

The President should reassure Prime Minister Abe that the United States will not just uphold its alliance commitments to Tokyo, but also support Abe’s efforts to strengthen Japan’s own defense capabilities.
The first track in this approach – reassuring Japan about U.S. commitments – will send a critical message both to our ally and its neighbors. 
China’s campaign to pressure Japan into ceding control of the Senkaku Islands has grown increasingly dangerous.  In early February, a Chinese naval vessel locked onto a Japanese ship with weapons control radar, a hostile act.  Although the United States does not have a formal position on ultimate sovereignty of the islands in question, the U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty requires Washington to defend “territories under the administration of Japan,” as the Senkakus are.  If Washington loses credibility on this issue, where our obligations are crystal clear, we would encourage China’s territorial ambitions against its neighbors in the South China Sea.  The President should state, as then-Secretary of State Clinton did in January, that the United States opposes any unilateral action seeking to undermine Japanese administration of the Senkakus.
Similarly, North Korea’s claim that its February nuclear test involved a “miniaturized” device was all the more worrisome to Tokyo because Pyongyang long ago demonstrated its ability to reach Japan’s major cities with reliable ballistic missiles. The United States should never miss an opportunity to emphasize our commitment to provide Japan with extended deterrence and to coordinate our North Korea policy with Tokyo and other regional allies.
The second track of this approach is just as important.  The President should reassure Prime Minister Abe that the United States supports Japanese efforts to enhance its own self-defense capabilities.  There are two specific areas that merit American support in this regard: easing restrictions on “collective self-defense” operations, and allowing greater defense-industrial cooperation.
During his first stint as Prime Minister, Abe established a commission to review potential constitutional restrictions on the ability of Japanese forces to aid their U.S. partners, known as “collective self-defense.”  Now back in office, Abe has formally received the panel’s recommendations to allow such operations as intercepting ballistic missiles targeting the United States, defending U.S. ships providing missile defense protection for Japan, and providing greater support for U.N. Peacekeeping Operations. Although Japan’s critics, especially in Beijing, will argue that these changes somehow represent a new “militarism,” they are indeed common-sense steps to achieve a more effective alliance.  The President should express his strong support for moving forward with this agenda.
In addition, the Abe government has announced its intent to modify the country’s nearly 40-year-old prohibition on arms exports in order to partner in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. This follows an earlier easing of prohibitions to allow Japanese industry to contribute to missile defense programs, and is a helpful step toward integrating Japan into the types of defense-industrial partnerships that the United States enjoys with its closest allies.
What the United States Wants
From the American perspective, it is important that Prime Minister Abe express his principled interest in working toward Japanese accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement that the United States is negotiating with ten partners at this time.  President Obama expressed his personal interest in the TPP negotiations during the State of the Union address, and Japan’s participation would significantly increase the economic weight of the agreement.  Moreover, it would provide Tokyo with an opportunity to further diversify its trade relations after a year in which many Japanese businesses in China were shuttered during anti-Japanese protests.
Although Prime Minister Abe does not appear poised to make a commitment at this time, he stated in a pre-trip Washington Post interview that he will decide to join TPP negotiations only if he is “convinced on whether or not Japan’s participation in the TPP will have a positive effect on the national interests of Japan.” Given the many advantages that joining will offer Tokyo, particularly in terms of shaping the agreement as a party to the negotiations, this is an optimistic sign that Prime Minister Abe will follow his words with action.
Don’t expect fireworks at the Obama-Abe meeting, but do look for the steady progress that makes for a mature and growing partnership.

Additional Resources
  • In Japan’s Defense – Editorial – Wall Street Journal Asia (subscription required) – January 9, 2013
  • Asia's Pivotal Power – Richard Fontaine and Dan Twining – Wall Street Journal Asia (subscription required) – December 27, 2012


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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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