Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted jointly for Weekly Toyo Keizai and Dispatch Japan. It is the fifth in a series of interviews and commentary about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Friday meeting with President Obama. Rust Deming, a veteran Japan specialist, is an adjunct professor of Japan studies at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.
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?
DEMING: I don’t expect many specific results. This is really a summit to set the agenda for the two governments. First is for the two leaders to get to know each other. The prime minister has made clear that the US-Japan alliance is at the top of his list of priorities, at the center of Japanese foreign policy. The two leaders will try to put together a list of issues that need to be worked on over the next year or so.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What do you see as Abe’s main goal?
DEMING: Abe is not in a political position to bring very much to Washington. Nor does the Obama administration expect him to bring much. Abe wants to establish a personal relationship with the president, and wants to send a message that the US-Japan alliance is headed in a good direction now that he is back in office. He wants to demonstrate that he and the LDP have returned, and that whatever shakiness occurred over the last three years is a thing of the past.
In fact, while the first year of the DPJ in power, under Hatoyama, proved to be a difficult time for the alliance, Kan and Noda did try to bring the alliance back to the center of Japan’s foreign policy, and we made a lot of progress. If you look at the “2+2” statements from 2011 and 2012, you’ll see that the DPJ really accepted the fundamental strategic objectives of the alliance, and Japan’s roles and missions, which the LDP had agreed on earlier. There really was no gap between the two countries, which was a very good accomplishment, and very beneficial to the long-term stability of the alliance. The DPJ period was not without its benefits for the alliance.
But the LDP is back, and Abe wants to signal that he is personally putting the alliance back in the center of Japanese foreign policy.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is the Obama administration’s main goal?
DEMING: The White House would like to emphasize that Japan is critical to America’s broad policy in Asia, and at the center of the “rebalancing” of US global strategy toward Asia. The administration would like to see Japan become a more active player in regional and global affairs on a wide range of issues, particularly on TPP, and more open markets.
There is also recognition that, prior to the Upper House election, Prime Minister Abe is not in a position to do very much, or even say very much, on TPP and other issues. But I expect the president to emphasize the importance the US attaches to moving forward on TPP and other issues that are important for the alliance.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Will Abe be able to bring any “gift” to Washington, or will domestic political considerations make that unfeasible?
DEMING: We have been trying to get away from that in recent years, particularly in early meetings such as the upcoming visit. Abe has been in office only two months. The real opportunity provided by this summit is to set an agenda for the alliance. Down the road, when the two leaders meet again later in the year at the G8 summit or the East Asian summit, for example, there perhaps will be more concrete results. But this is not the time to expect very much.
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?
DEMING: It’s clear that some people are a little uneasy with the narrative that Abe seems to share with many conservative Japanese about responsibility for and the nature of developments in the 1930s and 1940s. Most of us in Washington believe that history is a complicating factor for relations among countries in the region, and therefore not very useful to bring up. It complicates Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors, particularly the ROK and China.
But in his last tenure as prime minister, in 2006, Mr. Abe reached out to China and Korea. He did not visit Yasukuni Shrine. He is a sophisticated statesman. A lot of people hope that, whatever his personal views and impulses, Abe will operate in a way that does not complicate Japan’s relations with China and Korea, or even with the US. Remember, there are some issues related to history, such as “comfort women,” that resonate in Washington. Most people with whom I speak are fairly hopeful that Abe will behave in a way similar to his first tenure.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you expect the collective self-defense issue to come up explicitly?
DEMING: That is really an issue for the Japanese to decide. Many people in Washington would like to see Japan move forward on this issue in due course. The timing of what Japan does, and how it does it, does have importance for relations in the region. But this has been a long-term issue for Japan in which the US does have great interest. You’ll recall the Yanai Commission established by Abe himself in his first term, which studied the issue. The Yanai report relates to Japan’s ability to play a more active role in the alliance and in peacekeeping operations. Many of the ideas in the report represent a natural evolution in Japan’s defense posture, and not something that signals a major departure.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Abe has ruled out entry into the TPP talks for now. Will Japan eventually join the talks?DEMING: I hope so. This really is not primarily a US-Japan bilateral issue. Japan needs to take these steps to restructure its own economy, for its own good. Abe is clearly focused on the economy. He has taken some short-term steps to stimulate the economy. But long-term, there has to be a fundamental opening up of the economy. TPP is a useful device to help make that happen. I hope that, after the Upper House election, Japan will move in this direction, because it is in the interest of Japan’s long-term economic health, which is very important for the US-Japan relationship.
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?
DEMING: I have not been to Okinawa in about one year, but I don’t think the political dynamic there concerning Futenma and the planned replacement at Henoko has changed very much. The Henoko plan is still very problematic. We are going ahead with improvements at Futenma. The MV-22s (Osprey) have arrived there. Things seem to be operating smoothly. But I have always been extremely nervous about the possibility of an accident at Futenma, which would really, seriously complicate our overall alliance.
I hope that the new government in Tokyo might be stable and be able to make some long-term plans. And, with the Obama administration beginning its second term, there will be new people coming into office. The two sides might be in a better position to put the Futenma issue back at the top of the agenda and actually do something about the issue. I would hate to see the issue just lie fallow for another 17-18 years; we started discussing this in 1995.
I don’t have any magic solution. But I believe we need new imagination and new energy on the issue.