Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted jointly for Weekly Toyo Keizai and Dispatch Japan. It is the fourth in a series of interviews and commentary about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s upcoming visit to Washington. Sheila Smith is senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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?
SMITH: Given events in the region, I think this will be a crisis management summit to reaffirm the alliance. The transition in Japan makes this a good opportunity to discuss some outstanding bilateral issues, including TPP and Okinawa. But the real challenge for both sides will be to conduct the alliance reaffirmation in a way that has real meaning.
In Northeast Asia, we are facing a moment where our bilateral alliance cooperation really matters. We see Japan in a standoff with China over the Senkakus. There is no agreement on maritime boundaries. We’ve got a rising China with a trajectory of military growth.
All of the pieces are there for this to be a pretty serious heads-up for the alliance. The deterrence message is very important, and the Obama administration has done a good job in this area. But the risk-reduction message is also vital. Frameworks – bilateral, trilateral, regional – somehow have to be constructed with Beijing. I suspect there is a significant amount of interest blossoming at some level in China, because this standoff, or worse, is clearly not helpful to China’s longer-term interests.
Meanwhile, this is the beginning of the second Obama administration, and the White House is committed to a rebalancing of American force structure and overall strategic focus toward Asia. This is a moment for the Obama administration to begin defining and refining the rebalancing strategy.
Finally, the economic component of the US-Japan relationship needs enhancement. TPP is one piece of that, but there is much to be gained from a pretty frank discussion by the two leaders about growth strategies, including the yen and longer term economic goals, and how the alliance might work to support those strategies.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What do you see as Abe’s main goal?
SMITH: There has been a lot in the media about superficial things, such as the timing of the summit, or the Kyodo report that the Obama administration gave a firm “no” to collective self defense. Some reports seem almost determined to find problems. I don’t think that this is the tone or tenor of the upcoming meeting.
But there are challenging issues, including TPP and the Henoko project to replace the US Marine Air Station Futenma in Okinawa.
The Diet has made progress toward ratification of the Hague convention.
The real question is: what will the alliance accomplish? They will have to talk about the longer-term forward deployment of US forces. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to create some kind of strategic consultative process, not just one confined to the Senkaku problem, but one that envisions the shape and roles of the alliance over the next decade or two.
I suspect Abe will want to talk about TPP, even if he is not ready or able to say that Japan will join the talks. The president will want to hear Abe’s views on this. We all know it poses a domestic political hurdle, but the president would like to have a clear sense of how the prime minister plans to proceed.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is the Obama administration’s main goal?
SMITH: The administration is anxious to know how much “traction” the alliance can get. There is a tendency to dub recent problems as a “DPJ problem.” I don’t agree with that. Japanese politics are going through a structural transition. There will be governments, like the current Abe cabinet, that say “we have to wait until after the next election” before we can tackle this or that issue. This is not just a problem for one party. It is a structural problem that is as troubling for the conservatives as it was for the liberals, and it poses a big problem for the Japanese government.
The Obama administration wants to embrace the alliance. But there is much more realism in Washington now about how much can be accomplished, and how quickly. The realism first set in while the DPJ was in office, but it has not gone away with the LDP having come back.
There are signals, including the rising stock market and high ratings for the cabinet, that are positive, and people in Washington are aware of this, but the relatively low expectations remain.
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?
SMITH: There are people in Washington from the Bush administration who have worked with Abe, but the Obama administration needs time to get to know him. It’s best to treat him not as a former prime minister who has come back, but rather as head of a new cabinet that just came to office. That will enable the White House to get a feel for Abe’s perspectives, on the ‘history’ issue, on collective self defense, and other issues.
There definitely are questions in Washington about exactly what Abe means by ‘collective self-defense.’ People would like to get beyond the campaign slogans of “constitutional revision” and “reinterpreting collective self-defense,” so as to get down to the actual details of what that would mean for force posture, for interoperability between US and Japanese forces, and for roles and missions.
The administration would like to know in more concrete ways what his policies are aiming at. For example, when Defense Minister Onodera said he planned to throw out the existing National Defense Program Guidelines, most of us in Washington collectively groaned: “Why? What’s wrong with the ‘dynamic deterrence’ policies outlined in the current NDPG?”
The feeling in the administration is a desire for less of the political coloring of these issues, and more of the concrete details.
Then there is the broader issue of ‘history,’ especially ‘comfort women.’ What does Mr. Abe plan to do? Does he want to issue a new statement, while not replacing the Murayama statement? There are still big questions about the prime minister’s intentions, particularly with regard to Japan’s relations with South Korea. These are not really questions of history of Japan’s wartime activities. The issue really is the viability of Japan’s bilateral relationship with the ROK.
People are watching closely Mr. Abe’s efforts to reach out to South Korea, not simply on a strategic level, but really the broader process of reconciliation and accommodation. This is where Abe’s personal views, and those of some of his cabinet members, will be very important.
We are all looking to see how Mr. Abe will treat the upcoming Takeshima Day, how Minister Shimomura will handle textbook revision, and other issues that could have an impact on Japan-ROK relations.
It is well-known that the prime minister and some of his cabinet members have very explicit personal views. But people are willing to wait and see how they proceed as a government, and make judgments once specific policies emerge.
Given the strategic environment in East Asia, particularly after the recent North Korean nuclear test, Japan and South Korea cannot afford to not move in the direction of a broad accommodation. It is very much in Japan’s strategic interests, equally important perhaps as it is to strengthen the US-Japan alliance.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Abe has ruled out entry into the TPP talks for now. Will Japan eventually join the talks?
SMITH: The DPJ and the LDP face the same problem: what is going to happen with Japanese agriculture? How much is any Japanese prime minister willing to risk politically to mobilize for agriculture reform? How much is the prime minister willing to use TPP as a tool for promotion of economic competitiveness?
We need Japan to join because that would greatly strengthen TPP. But Japan needs to do so pretty quickly so as to fully participate. Right now, the talks are proceeding without any voice from Japan. It really boils down to whether Japan wants to be pro-active about open markets and competitiveness, or wants to stay in the old mode of incrementalism.
In reality, Abe will probably have to win a huge Upper House election victory to make this possible. And he would still have to convince an awful lot of his own LDP Diet delegation to go along. The consensus-building won’t start until after the Upper House election. No LDP member will want to go into that election campaigning on a pro-TPP platform.
Unfortunately, with the TPP talks supposed to wrap up by the end of this year, that would mean Japan would not be able to catch up and influence the final outcome.
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?
SMITH: This is certainly not the first government in Tokyo to lack enthusiasm about tackling Okinawa basing issues. Ryutaro Hashimoto was the most pro-active. Junichiro Koizumi was very pro-alliance, but he was not visibly pro-active about Okinawa the way Hashimoto was. Most politicians see only trouble, and no rewards, in becoming heavily involved in Okinawa base issues.
The politics are also more complicated on Okinawa since the days of Hashimoto as prime minister. People often say: wait and see what happens in the next election. In Okinawa, there is always a “next election,” often within six months – governor, prefectural assembly, Nago mayor. There is always something.
But the trend lines have shifted considerably against the Henoko project. Local LDP leaders in Okinawa are openly against the Futenma Replacement facility plan for Henoko. For example, Naha Mayor Onaga led the recent protests that went to Hibiya Park in Tokyo.
We used to think of this as a progressive-left vs. conservative-right issue, and if the conservatives would just come back all would be fine. But it is much more complicated than that.
There is a new reality in the balance among and within Japan’s political parties. You don’t have the same people representing Tokyo and Okinawa. Trust was never very deep between Tokyo and Okinawa, but now there is even less than in the past. Tokyo is going to have to work very hard to win back the conservatives recently elected to the Okinawa prefectural assembly. They openly campaigned against the Henoko project.
I have thought for quite some time that the Henoko project is the least realistic of our options. Now, that is even more the case, with both liberals and conservatives on Okinawa lined up against it.
Can Abe-san shift that? We’ll have to see. Japan hasn’t had a conservative prime minister in quite some time. In any case, it will take time.
Unlike other issues, such as abductees or revision of the Constitution, Okinawa basing is not an issue on which Mr. Abe has been outspoken. We don’t know what he really thinks. But given everything else he has to deal with before the Upper House election, I cannot imagine that this is high on his priority list.