Mr. Abe Goes to Washington

This week, Japan's Prime Minister meets Obama. Gerald Wright explains what they need from each other, and why they may not get it.
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February 20, 2013
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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington on February 22 is the latest in a series of encounters involving Pacific powers aiming to adjust delicate regional relationships. Anxiety is deepening over the balance of power in the Pacific. In January, Chinese warships locked their fire-control radars on a Japanese destroyer and helicopter. Last week, North Korea conducted a nuclear test and earlier, successfully tested a missile that when fired, could reach Japan in ten minutes. When the President and Prime Minister meet at the White House, their words and body language will have to send a message that in Washington and Tokyo at least, there are cool hands at the tiller.

The United States faces a particular challenge: reaffirming its commitment to the security of a major ally while the Pentagon is engaged in a highly public exercise of budget cutting, likely to be only the first of many. Ironically, this fiscal belt tightening has not prevented the U.S. from getting itself into a classic security dilemma – when viewed from Beijing, the pursuit of U.S. security objectives looks like at an attempt at encirclement. President Obama is genuinely concerned about how the Chinese perceive his policies and those of America's allies. He does not want to provoke China into upsetting the regional balance of power. Evidence of this concern can be seen in the decision to keep the contentious issue of whether or not Japan’s military should be enabled to participate in collective self-defence off the meeting agenda.

Prime Minister Abe has a similarly challenging objective: He needs to be able to return home saying that the relationship between Japan and the United States has been strengthened in order to help get Japan’s economy up off the mat. Abe told the Japanese Diet in January that “[t]he biggest crisis Japan is facing is the fact that the Japanese people have lost confidence.” A renewal of confidence will be necessary if Abe’s initial economic measures of fiscal stimulus and monetary easing are going to work. A reaffirmation of American's support for Japan could make a significant contribution to bringing that about.

It is too early to tell whether Mr. Abe has the balanced approach and wide perspective that he will need to successfully navigate an increasingly complex regional security environment. True, he has already sent out feelers to try to ease communications between Beijing and Tokyo and he will likely meet with Xi Jinping, the new Chinese leader. The Prime Minister has also focused Japan’s attention on Southeast Asia. Likewise, it is a promising sign that, since taking office, he has not followed through on his intention to review Japan’s apology for the forced recruitment of Asian and European women into wartime army brothels – a move that would only exacerbate the current tensions with China and South Korea. Nevertheless, it is well known that he is prone to succumb to nationalist ardour, the more so because it resonates with a substantial part of the Japanese electorate. His cabinet positively reeks of nationalist causes. The possibility that he will appeal to nationalist prejudice in order to obscure potential government paralysis over questions of economic restructuring, nuclear power, climate change, and an aging workforce, is difficult to dismiss.

The President will certainly press the Prime Minister to take Japan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations but it is unclear how the two leaders will seek to square the liberalizing objectives of the TPP with the political pressure on Mr. Abe to preserve the high barriers that protect Japan's agricultural sector. One can be cynical about Japan’s interest in the TPP because the Japanese business sector is riddled with informal understandings which can confound the operation of formal trade agreements. Yet the TPP could be a building block for a Pacific economic order, assisting Japan to get back on its feet and discouraging inflammatory nationalism that would make relations with other Pacific states more difficult. If the President and the Prime Minister cannot agree on terms for Japan's participation in the talks, it will be a loss for a stable Pacific order and for Japan.