Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted jointly for Weekly Toyo Keizai and Dispatch Japan. It is the first in a series of interviews and commentary about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s upcoming visit to Washington. Chris Nelson is the founder and editor of The Nelson Report, one of the most influential voices in Washington on US policy toward East Asia.
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?
NELSON: Probably not much specific beyond important reaffirmation of the US-Japan alliance, and a clear restatement of concerns about North Korean testing of missiles and nuclear explosives.
Obama will likely want to be careful in his wording on the Senkakus, insisting on no use of force to change the status quo of Japanese administrative control, while not taking sides in the competing Japanese and Chinese claims to sovereignty. A lot will depend on the ongoing debate over Japan’s intelligence evaluation that China recently aimed a “lock-on” radar system at a Japanese naval vessel. That kind of radar system is used to guide weapons in an attack. Did that really happen, and has China backed away from that provocation since then? Pyongyang’s testing of another nuclear device has heightened regional tensions and added a degree of urgency to the meeting..
DISPATCH JAPAN: What do you see as Abe’s main goal?
NELSON: Abe would like a public demonstration from the US of solidarity and support on regional security, and he would like to avoid any public statements on politically ‘difficult’ issues that could complicate Upper House politics for the LDP.
Privately, Abe, like the rest of non-Chinese Asia, is very worried about the budget crisis (‘sequestration’) in Washington, and whether Congress and the White House will be able to keep the security commitments that Asia, especially Japan, is relying on for regional stability.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is the Obama administration’s main goal?
NELSON: The White House wants to present a dual public message: solidarity with Japan, along with calm management of regional security problems.
Privately, the White House wants to reinforce concerns already expressed about alliance management, especially Japan’s relations with South Korea, which is an important US ally and very important to regional security. The White House also wants to reinforce maintaining a calm approach to China and the Senkakus problem. Finally, the White House would like some clarification on Abe’s intent concerning TPP.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Will Abe be able to bring any “gift” to Washington, or will domestic political considerations make that unfeasible?
NELSON: Beef may be the only topic on which Abe will be able to publicly bring some good news for the US. With an Upper House election to take place by next summer, Abe feels limited in what he can do. This assumes that without the political complications associated with the election, Abe would actually be in favor of TPP or the building of a new US Marine facility on Okinawa, but we really don’t know that, which is why the White House wants clarification on Abe’s actual views.
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?
NELSON: Many in the US foreign policy elite, including in the Obama administration, have made clear that they are uncomfortable with the ‘revisionist history’ views held by some Japanese leaders. These views complicate alliance management, especially with South Korea, and make managing relations with China much more difficult. I doubt that this will be expressed in public. It will be interesting to see if any senior US officials who give background briefings about the summit bring up these sensitive topics.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Abe has ruled out entry into the TPP talks for now. Will Japan eventually join the talks?
NELSON: ‘Eventually’ is a long time! There is no question that major business, finance, and foreign policy officials see the importance, both strategically and policy-wise. A lengthy delay by Japan runs the risk that too many chapters in a prospective TPP agreement will be set, and therefore non-negotiable, without a chance for Japan to influence the details.
Abe’s agricultural minister is seen in Washington as surprisingly progressive overall, so perhaps later this year Abe will be willing to engage in a major domestic political dispute in favor of TPP. My guess is that if the TPP talks make real progress, Tokyo will feel the external pressure to join.
Concerning US-Japan bilateral trade, negotiations concerning beef have basically ended in a positive way. Negotiators have made a lot of progress on insurance, and some other difficult topics.
Much like the case of the Korea-US free trade agreement, the auto sector could prove to be most difficult for the US and Japan to resolve.
When Abe and Obama meet, I would like to see them stress areas of agreement, such as intellectual property rights and services, and not just harp on the areas of disagreement.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Abe announced he will not move forward for now with the next step for the Henoko project to replace the US Marine Air Station Futenma (the landfill request to Okinawa). If Abe can’t get the Henoko project moving, who can? Or is it effectively dead?
NELSON: I think the Henoko project is dead. The planned facility at Henoko will never be built.