Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted jointly for Weekly Toyo Keizai and Dispatch Japan. It is the second in a series of interviews and commentary about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s upcoming visit to Washington. Ralph Cossa is president of Pacific Forum-CSIS, a leading think-tank focusing on Asia and the Pacific.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Given the troubles with North Korea and China, there will be plenty for Abe and Obama to talk about. But do you expect any specific achievements from the summit?
COSSA: It sounds like this is turning into a “get acquainted” meeting rather than a summit with key deliverables. I’m sure the administration was hoping for more – Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF, Henoko), TPP – but it seems clear he is coming empty-handed.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What do you see as Abe’s main goal?
COSSA: Abe wants Obama’s blessing, and wants to enhance his image prior to Upper House elections, which seem to be the only thing really on Abe’s mind.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is the Obama administration’s main goal?
COSSA: The Obama administration will likely try to impress upon Abe that deliverables are needed now on FRF and eventually on TPP.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Washington seems reluctant to appear too close to Abe with respect to collective self-defense or open criticism of China. Is Washington comfortable with Abe, or do his views on history and hawkish tendencies make people leery?
COSSA: Washington is likely less comfortable or enthused about Abe than he apparently thinks Washington is or should be. I have not talked with him directly but others have told me that he believes Washington is (or at least should be) relieved with his victory, and that he has an “anything but DPJ” mentality that will not sell very well in DC. When Noda was in office, Washington was actually pretty comfortable with the DPJ. Abe’s election has raised both expectations and anxieties, given some of his election posturing, although most believe the “real Abe” is not as bad as his campaign rhetoric implies or as bad as his critics advertise.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Abe has ruled out entry into the TPP talks for now. Will Japan eventually join the talks?
COSSA: Probably. If I were making US policy, I would not be pushing Japan to join now, since, with respect to market openness, it would lower the lowest denominator. If I were Japan, I would want to join now, when pressure to open up would probably be relatively low because the US is so anxious for Japan to join. So neither side’s current position makes sense to me.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Abe announced he will not move forward for now with the next step for the Henoko project to replace Futenma (the landfill request to Okinawa). If Abe can’t get the Henoko project moving, who can? Or is it effectively dead?
COSSA: Part of the raised expectations in Washington is on Abe delivering on FRF. Asking for more time does not cut it. If Abe can’t deliver and move the Henoko project forward after the Upper House election, it will cause some strains between the two governments. But last month, we published an essay by Kerry Gershaneck of Hawaii Pacific University on a possible alternative FRF facility, one that Kerry wrote would be “more strategically useful, politically viable, and environmentally friendly” than Henoko.