What Does Washington Think of Abe’s “Strong Japan”?


Prime Minister Abe, who will soon have his first summit with President Obama, is eager to put Japan-US ties back on a more solid footing. But some in Washington fear that a more assertive Japanese government under Abe may mean unwelcome instability in East Asia.

On January 18, shortly before stepping down from her post as US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton held a press conference in the Benjamin Franklin Room of the State Department in Washington together with visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio. Speaking with a broad smile on her face, Secretary Clinton declared, “I am very pleased to announce that we have extended an invitation to Prime Minister Abe to come to Washington to meet with President Obama in the third week of February.” But the next day’s Washington Post contained no report of this planned visit by the prime minister of Japan, a major US ally, nor did it even mention that the secretary of state had held a meeting with the Japanese foreign minister.

The United States’ Real Agenda

The Clinton-Kishida meeting thus paved the way for a Japan-US summit. It will be the first visit to the United States by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō since taking office on December 26 last year. (Abe leads the right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party, which regained control of the House of Representatives from the middle-of-the-road Democratic Party of Japan in the December 16 general election.) But the biggest result for the Japanese side was the strong statement Clinton made at the January 18 press conference regarding the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. In what amounted to a warning to China, which has been pressing its own claim to these islands in the East China Sea, she declared, “We oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration [of the Senkakus].”

Secretary Clinton’s statement was thoroughly prepared. Over the period following last November’s presidential election in the United States, Japanese and US diplomats had worked carefully to coordinate their positions on reinforcing deterrence against China with respect to the Senkakus. According to diplomatic sources, Clinton had been thinking of visiting Japan early in January and using the occasion to make a clear statement of the US position on this issue, but illness prevented her from making the trip, and so she ended up making her declaration when Foreign Minister Kishida visited Washington.

Secretary Clinton’s words were certainly encouraging for the Japanese side. But she also said, “I reiterated [to Foreign Minister Kishida], as I have to our Chinese friends, that we want to see China and Japan resolve this matter peacefully through dialogue, and we applaud the early steps taken by Prime Minister Abe’s government to reach out and begin discussions.” This, I believe is Washington’s real agenda. The biggest worry for the US government is that destabilization in East Asia will harm America’s national interest. So US policymakers take a realistic position, as expressed by Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell in remarks to a seminar in Washington on November 2. Referring to the confrontation over the islands in the East China Sea, Campbell stated, “There is recognition that certain problems are so challenging that they can only be managed. They may not be able to be solved.”

Doubts About the Abe Administration’s Security Stance

Most Japanese would assert that it is the Chinese who are trying to change the status quo in the East China Sea. But in the United States a considerable number of people, both within the Obama administration and among Japan experts outside the government, fear that the very existence of an LDP administration headed by Abe (often identified as a hawk in the foreign media) and some of the statements that the new prime minister made before taking office will provoke China and cause regional instability.

In a survey of over 200 experts conducted late in January by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank, about half of the respondents took the view that the Abe administration’s security agenda would complicate US national security. And when Assistant Secretary of State Campbell visited Japan in mid-January, he unofficially cautioned against the idea of revising the so-called Kōno statement. (In 1993 Chief Cabinet Secretary Kōno Yōhei issued an official statement apologizing for the suffering of the “comfort women” from the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere who served as prostitutes for the Japanese military during the war years. Before becoming prime minister, Abe took issue with the content of this statement.)

Prime Minister Abe calls for the restoration of a “strong Japan,” but what the United States hopes to see is a Japan that can control the deterioration of bilateral relations with China by acting in a cool-headed manner and that can serve as a presence contributing to Asia-Pacific stability without being swayed by nationalism. That, in Washington’s view, is a precondition for the proper functioning of the Japan-US alliance as the diplomatic and security cornerstone of the United States’ pivot to Asia. As the Americans see it, Japan’s efforts to strengthen the alliance cannot be reduced to increasing the defense budget and permitting the exercise of collective self-defense. It is indicative that officials in the State Department and elsewhere in the administration have shown great favorable interest in Prime Minister Abe’s January visit to Southeast Asia in advance of his trip to Washington.

Both Washington and Tokyo wish to use the upcoming visit by Abe to work on repairing Japan-US ties, which became shaky after the DPJ took power in 2009. Meanwhile, the Japanese side needs to note that a transition is currently underway within the Obama administration as the president starts his second term. The team of Secretary Clinton and Assistant Secretary Campbell, both of whom are knowledgeable about and friendly toward Japan, has departed, and the prospects for the future of the bilateral relationship are not entirely clear at this point.

At his Senate confirmation hearing, John Kerry, who became secretary of state on February 1, referred to the importance of strengthening US relations with China as a global economic power, saying that it should not be viewed as an adversary. He did not say a single word about the Japan-US alliance.

The Realists of the Obama Team

How much weight does President Obama place on his upcoming meeting with Prime Minister Abe? Sources reveal that the two sides are still working on the schedule, seeking to agree on the amount of time the president will devote to the prime minister. The Japanese reportedly hope that the two leaders will lunch together after their morning summit meeting on February 22, but there have been indications of reluctance on the American side; State Department insiders initially suggested that Vice President Joe Biden host the lunch instead of the president. The reason for the US stance is clear: The Americans are not expecting Abe to offer any significant decisions to present to Obama when he visits.

What does the Obama administration want from Japan in specific terms? Clinton reiterated Washington’s priorities at the January 18 press conference. To sum them up, they are (1) progress on the long-standing issue of relocation of the US Marines’ Futenma facility in Okinawa, (2) Japanese participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and (3) prompt adoption by Japan of the Hague Abduction Convention. Except for the Hague Convention, these are issues on which the Abe administration needs to proceed with caution, and it will be hard for the prime minister to tell the president what he wants to hear.

According to information from the Japanese embassy in Washington, the Japanese side hopes that the summit will be an occasion for building trust between the two leaders and discussing a grand strategy for the coming years, but what the Americans hope to hear first of all is about Japan’s plans for improving relations with its neighbors. The second-term Obama administration has set forth a liberal policy agenda, but the consensus in Washington is that the president’s current team is actually more of a realist group than that of his first term. Incidentally, as far as personal trust goes, Abe’s predecessor as prime minister, the DPJ’s Noda Yoshihiko, got quite respectable marks from key people in Washington.

A Pivot from Asia Back to the Middle East?

President Obama recently revealed that his first trip outside the United States during his second term would be a visit to Israel in March. Secretary of State Kerry is also eager to work on the Middle East peace process, and it seems possible that the focus of US foreign policy will shift back from Asia to the Middle East, where issues like the civil war in Syria and Iran’s nuclear development program demand urgent attention. When Hillary Clinton became secretary of state in January 2009, she lost no time visiting Japan, but the external conditions the United States faces now are quite different from what they were then.

In his second inaugural address, President Obama declared, “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe.” This is an expression of his intention to make maximum use of the United States’ global network of alliances as a resource to supplement its own power, which is declining in relative terms, to deal with the issues it confronts—a posture that is one of the core elements of his administration’s realism. The Japan-US alliance is no more than one of the links in this global network.

When I spoke with one official in Washington about the lack of excitement on the US side about the upcoming summit with Abe, he revealed a bit of exasperation. To paraphrase, he said, “Why does the Japanese side always talk only of the bilateral alliance? What are the domestic problems that the Japanese government confronts, and how does it plan to deal with them? Whether it’s energy, social welfare, or other issues, if the topics are relevant to the United States, the president would surely be happy to engage with the prime minister in discussing them.”

(Originally written in Japanese on February 9, 2013)

Asia security Clinton Obama Shinzo Abe Mizumoto Tatsuya Fumio Kishida Campbell Kerry