Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted jointly for Weekly Toyo Keizai and Dispatch Japan. It is the third in a series of interviews and commentary about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s upcoming visit to Washington. Jeffrey Hornung is an associate professor with the Hawaii-based Asia-Pacific Center for Security 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?
HORNUNG: No, I don’t. They will have lots to talk about: China, Senkaku, revised defense guidelines, Futenma Replacement Facility, North Korea, and energy. Given Abe’s recent public statements on the TPP and the desire to make a decision on Japan’s participation, it is likely this will also be a focus of discussion. That said, I don’t expect any specific achievements beyond a frank conversation, a reiteration of the importance of the alliance, and a photo opportunity.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What do you see as Abe’s main goal?
HORNUNG: I think Abe’s goal for the summit is limited to having a face-to-face meeting with Obama and talk about the aforementioned issues. The summit is highly valuable to Abe because it provides him an opportunity to explain his thoughts on the issues, what he intends to do, and to demonstrate that he is both a good steward of the alliance and welcomed by the US. It doesn’t appear Abe will ask Obama for anything specific regarding any of the issues.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is the Obama administration’s main goal?
HORNUNG: Initially, I think the US agreed to the meeting because the Japanese side strongly requested it. Now that the meeting is taking place, I sense the US will use the meeting to talk about priorities for the alliance under Abe, express a strong desire for progress on Japan’s participation in the TPP and emphasize the need for Japan to have good relations with its neighbors and therefore tone down any statements or policies that may be seen as overtly antagonistic to Japan’s neighbors.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Will Abe be able to bring any “gift” to Washington, or will domestic political considerations make that unfeasible?
HORNUNG: I don’t think Abe will bring any gifts to Washington. He is not in a position to do so on issues that are relevant to the alliance. There is no consensus in Okinawa on the FRF, members of the LDP are not yet convinced about joining the TPP, and Abe just re-engaged his expert panel from his first administration to restart discussions on collective self-defense. There have been no decisions reached on any of these issues, so he is in no position to offer any new policies. If anything can be considered a “gift,” Abe may play up his decision to exempt F-35 fighter jet parts manufactured by Japanese firms from Japan’s prohibition on exporting arms. Or he may emphasize his willingness to submit legislation to enable Japan to join the Hague Convention.
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?
HORNUNG: It is not a case of Washington being comfortable or not with Abe and any personal views he may hold. Instead, it is more about US strategic thinking, and officials in Washington trying to maintain calm relations throughout Asia at a time the President has expressed an interest in rebalancing to the region. If you look at Abe’s predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda, he too was rather conservative when it came to security matters, very similar to Abe. And yet, under Noda, relations with the US returned to normalcy after a brief hiatus under Noda’s two predecessors.
The difference between Noda and Abe is Noda didn’t try to overtly antagonize China or South Korea. Yes, Noda purchased three of the Senkaku Islands, but he did it only because he was trying to prevent a worse scenario. On the other hand, Abe’s speeches and comments during the LDP presidential election and general election were at times antagonistic to Japan’s neighbors, particularly China. From the US perspective, such comments are a distraction because it disrupts Japan’s relations with its neighbors, which influences US ability to effectively engage all countries in the region on more substantial issues. Likewise, although Abe said he will not revise the Kono Statement or the Murayama Statement, he will issue his own statement. If his statement flares up anti-Japanese sentiments in China or South Korea, or hurts relations with those countries with which Japan is slowly working to strengthen security relations (i.e. Southeast Asian countries, Australia, India), the energy devoted to calming the tensions is a distraction to US engagement on other issues.
The US can work with conservative Japanese premiers, but I think the problem (if there is one) arises when those premiers pursue policies or statements that hurt Japan’s relations with its neighbors. The US wants Japan to have good relations with its neighbors, including China. I get the sense that Abe understands all this, and in order to show he is a good steward of the alliance, we can probably expect him to tone down his rhetoric on things like history.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Abe has ruled out entry into the TPP talks for now. Will Japan eventually join the talks?
HORNUNG: It is difficult to say without asking Abe himself, but I can appreciate the difficult decision he faces. In Abe’s party there are members who strongly oppose Japan’s participation because they are concerned the LDP will lose votes from the agriculture sector if Abe announces his decision to join TPP talks. This matters because Upper House elections are scheduled for July, and he wants to secure a majority so as to provide him legislative power to pursue other items on his agenda. Joining the TPP talks would jeopardize this because it would upset those voters that have traditionally voted for the LDP. At the same time, he has pledged his determination to tackle Japan’s economic problems and a desire to build closer relations with the US. Joining TPP talks would assist both of these goals. While I don’t expect any movement on this issue prior to the summit, it can be expected that they will discuss Abe’s position.
Still, there is a limited timeframe within which we can expect Abe to reach a final decision. This is because the US requires 90 days of Congressional deliberations for approval when it holds international trade negotiations. Because it is expected that TPP member countries will conclude their talks at the October APEC meeting, Abe will have to reach a decision sometime after the summit and prior to July’s elections. Given that Abe consistently reiterates his interest in joining the talks premised on the ability to gain exceptions to abolishing all tariffs, he appears interested in joining the talks, while looking for some sort of political leverage to gain his party’s acceptance. It is a political balancing act that I’m not sure he can win. It is unclear whether other TPP-interested countries are keen to allow exceptions and, if they did, whether Abe’s LDP would accept these exceptions as sufficient to justify them approving Japan’s participation.
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?
HORNUNG: I don’t think the plan is dead, nor is it a case of which person in Tokyo can move forward with the project. It is more a case of who in Okinawa can move the project forward. Or more correctly, who wants to move the project forward. Although Abe has announced he will not move forward with the project for now, he will focus on efforts to make a positive political environment in Okinawa, nurturing relations with local politicians in Nago and Naha in an effort to build some semblance of trust. In order for the project to proceed, not only the governor, but the Nago mayor and council have to approve. Currently, all oppose. Abe’s task is to nurture a better political environment to get some to say yes before their next election OR to help get candidates elected that support the plan. There are elections next year in Nago and Naha. Some in Tokyo believe that Gov. Nakaima may step down (due to health reasons) before the next election but, before doing so, announce his support of the plan in order to settle the contentious issue once and for all. Under this thinking, Abe’s task is to create for Nakaima an environment for a ‘hanamichi’ (path for a graceful exit) in the interlude.