Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe will arrive in Washington two weeks from now, with the highlight of his visit to be an address to a joint meeting of the US Congress. The key issues on the agenda include an upgrade of the US-Japan security relationship, and the ongoing efforts to conclude an Asia-wide trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But Abe, Japan’s most politically-stable prime minister in years, is a polarizing figure in Northeast Asia, and could wind up receiving as much or more attention himself than the important issues at play.
Patrick Cronin directs the Asia program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), one of Washington’s more influential think tanks on defense and national security issues. He has been involved with US-Japan policy for over 20 years, going back to the “Nye Initiative” of the early 1990s, which resulted in the upgrade of bilateral defense “guidelines” in 1997. When the Liberal Democrats (LDP) temporarily lost power in 2009, Cronin was one of the few specialists in Washington who had good contact with the LDP, the defense bureaucracy, and the then-newcomers of the Democratic Party (DPJ). Cronin has held senior positions at the National Defense University, London’s IISS, and CSIS in Washington, and served several years as the third-ranking official at the US Agency for International Development (AID).
DISPATCH JAPAN: Before we get into Prime Minister Abe’s upcoming visit to Washington, let’s set some context. The US Congress is now considering the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). You’ve suggested to members of Congress that they view TPP as critical to US national security, that it would rebrand the US as more than a military power in the region.
CRONIN: That’s right. The Asia-Pacific region is driven mostly by trade and economics, and economic strategy. The United States has lost a lot of credibility; we used to be the dominant economic power, and the dominant trade power.
For the past few years, the US has pushed TPP as the leading framework for region.
My point to US policy makers is the intrinsic importance of reminding the region that the US is a great market power, interested first and foremost in open access to trade, and the global commons more broadly.
For better or worse, the US has made TPP the end-all and be-all of our whole approach to the region. So, without TPP, and without the trade promotion authority (TPA) that is a necessary precursor for TPP, the United States would be pushed onto our back feet for a number of years – well into the next administration. That is how long it would take to put together any new initiative that would have any hope of winning broad appeal, not just in the region, but with our Congress.
It is quite ironic that the US Trade Representative initially opposed bringing Japan into the TPP, on the theory that Japan would drag out an endless dialogue and negotiation. But now, in the 11th hour of trying to bring the TPP negotiations to a successful conclusion, it doesn’t seem to be Prime Minister Abe who is dragging his heels. It is the US that can’t get its act together.
For Japan, TPP is clearly a vital strategic interest. Abe seems anxious to prevent Japan from slipping down the ladder of great power nations. He is trying to preserve Japan’s strong stature, especially as China rises so quickly. Abe’s third arrow of structural reform has been waiting for something like TPP, and if it is not forthcoming, then it will be a serious wound to Japan’s hopes of preserving its stature.
DISPATCH JAPAN: You think Japan – the Abe government – sees TPP in such strategic terms?
CRONIN: Japan has been pushing to tighten our alliance, even while it has been seeking economic revival, including with the TPP. But Japan is not reassured. Look at the lack of reassurance that Japan apparently feels over the Senkaku Islands. Because of the growing contest with China in the South China Sea, Japan is very wary over whether the United States will be fully committed to Japan. Every ally worries about this kind of thing to some degree. But there are plenty of signs of deep concerns in Japan about this, which led President Obama last year to state very publicly that Article 5 of the Mutual Security Treaty we have with Japan would apply to the Senkakus. It showed that Japan is in need of greater reassurance today than ever before.
DISPATCH JAPAN: You have similar concerns about Australia.
CRONIN: Yes. The Australians want to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) proposed by China. I think the AIIB is a natural thing for the region to do. The US should have a clear message in support of any principled approach to multinational development programs. The British, the Germans, the Italians apparently want to join. The AIIB will likely be congruent with World Bank-type rules. Having Australia, Korea, and other allies inside the institution would be a welcome development.
Think back just two governments ago in Australia, to the Howard government, at the time of the financial crisis in the US in 2008. Australia was worried that by 2030 the US would no longer be the dominant power. China looked ascendant. Other Australian leaders are on record saying that Australia needs a more balanced approach between China and the US.
Australia, like other powers, keep trying to balance their security interests with the United States on the one hand, and their trade interests with China.
That is both the real danger, and real opportunity for the US. If we rebrand ourselves as a balanced power, one that brings trade, and not simply security guarantees, we will be more palatable to all of our partners and other powers in the region, including new partners in Southeast Asia. If we just have a security agenda in the region, we’ll be thwarted because of a lack of political will when tensions rise with China. Even a strong China will be much more compelled by a strong, balanced US to modify the rules it would like to perpetuate, such as labor, property rights, and state enterprises. China might like to push its own rules in these and other areas, but will have to adjust if they are forced to comply with a high-standards trade agreement of the sort we are talking about with TPP. China will have to compromise. That is the aim: to negotiate the rules for the Asia-Pacific region, to which China would have to comply.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Just to clarify: US trade negotiators initially did not want Japan included in TPP?
CRONIN: Lawyers inside USTR made it very clear that they did not want Japan an initial stakeholder, on the grounds that it would protract the negotiations, and potentially thwart a successful conclusion. The alternative idea was to have a smaller group in the initial round, and then invite Japan to join in the second round.
Things have changed with Prime Minister Abe, though Prime Minister Kan was also open to joining the TPP negotiating process as a lever to promote necessary domestic reforms in Japan.
But there certainly was a time when US officials harbored major doubts that Tokyo would be serious about the economic reforms needed for Japan to comply with TPP.
The irony now is that it does not appear to be Japan that is foot-dragging.
Systemically, it is the US Congress’s inability to come to grips with Trade Promotion Authority that makes the United States appear as the dysfunctional party.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you think the Obama Administration is really committed to TPA, and TPP?
CRONIN: The US faces a presidential race in 2016, and whichever party wins, the new president will start with either a huge gain, or a huge deficit, depending on whether TPP has been adopted.
TPP is not the end-all or be-all of civilization. But the US Government has made it our singular trade liberalization initiative. We won’t be able to get to our European initiative if we don’t succeed with TPP.
As a result, a lot rides on the success of TPP passing; for the US Government broadly, not just the Obama Administration’s legacy.
Without TPP, the US strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region will look very hollow.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Why?
CRONIN: Thus far, the US military presence in the region has adjusted only on the margins of what we had before. If TPP were to fail, our diplomacy in the region will largely be forgotten, or dismissed. The US will look like a declining, one-dimensional power; big guns, but little sway or influence in the very important local disputes in the region.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is the Obama administration doing enough?
CRONIN: The Obama administration is definitely mobilizing. But when I was up on Capitol Hill recently, it was obvious that the White House needs to do more. Congressional staffers are still asking: When will the White House really reach out to us?
In fairness: The mood in Congress is not exactly open and friendly to the White House. But the White House needs to do a lot more.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Such as?
CRONIN: It really needs to be bipartisan. I think the White House should reach out to someone like Jon Huntsman, who may be the only Republican of note not running for president, and suggest that they work together to sell TPA and TPP to Congress. Huntsman knows the issues, and the politics. There needs to be some compromise, starting with the president.
There is a moral hazard for the president. He has become a very polarizing figure, and that will only increase as the 2016 presidential race heats up. If President Obama is the sole major advocate for TPP, that could make it even more difficult to pass. So the president has to be surrounded by strong bipartisan voices. Paul Ryan is another important Republican who could play that role very well, and there are other sitting members of Congress who could do it effectively.
The president should be looking to share the success of TPA and TPP because passage would only be the beginning of a new round of fierce competition and additional negotiations.
The US will have to follow through with new initiatives. But we can’t even think about that until we get to the finish line of TPA and TPP.
DISPATCH JAPAN: In the context of the Obama administration’s initiative to rebalance our global policies toward East Asia, how is it that Washington so poorly managed the diplomacy surrounding China’s proposal for a regional infrastructure bank?
CRONIN: For better or worse, the United States has been heavily focused on major security initiatives in Afghanistan and Iraq. We created an economy that went into a downward spiral and deep recession. We are now trying to be restrained in our international security policy which, in general, was a prudent move, but did provide others with opportunities to try to fill the gaps. We have been cutting defense spending, especially with sequestration in place, and we have been cutting back on foreign assistance.
So, in a declining budgetary and economic environment, we were failing to initiate more comprehensive moves that could appeal to the Asia-Pacific region.
We put ourselves in the unwise position of telling Asian allies and friends to turn down money very much needed for infrastructure, unless the money came from us. And we said this even though we had no money to give them.
The US has to be on the side of progress, of problem-solving, and of rules that everyone can live by. But other than TPP, which is a very important initiative, we have been failing to promote additional trade, investment, and development programs. We could have been working in a bipartisan fashion to rework the Bretton Woods institutions, such as reworking the distribution of voting rights in the Asian Development Bank. The existing institutions need to be more innovative and creative in tackling development issues in the region. And even if we had been doing those things, there would still have been a shortage of capital in Asia because the area is so dynamic economically.
So China’s capital is going to be important. We should have been trying to steer China’s initiative in a direction that is consistent with global rules that have worked so well in the region over the past 70 years. We certainly should not have been trying to block our friends and allies from joining the AIIB. In fact, the US ought to join. We should want a voice in the rules that will govern infrastructure investments. We would be in a position to help shape rules and regulations on labor, the environment, and other issues that are critical for the region.
Instead, the perception regarding China’s bank proposal is that the US is being defensive, and is trying to stop China. In fact, China’s track record on infrastructure investments is not very good. We should be on the inside, having influence.
That brings us back to the broader point that we have put all of our policy eggs in the TPP basket, which is why it is so important that Congress pass it.
DISPATCH JAPAN: But who in the Administration dropped the ball on China’s AIIB idea?
CRONIN: Ultimately the White House is responsible. There are some excellent people who are trying to convey reasonable messages that then have to be implemented by various departments. But the messaging from this administration has at times been abysmal. That is not me being critical of the administration. This is what I hear from the region. Even if the administration wants to hedge on the AIIB more than I would, we should at least have had a clear message to deliver. For example, we could have been saying: “There are lots of questions about the AIIB. We don’t oppose it, and we won’t stand in the way of any of our friends and allies in the region from joining, but we hope they will raise the serious questions that need to be raised.” That would have been a reasonable position. But it is the kind of message that has to be made consistently, over time. Our principles only matter if it doesn’t appear that we are changing them from moment to moment. Right now, our friends find us unpredictable. We’ve put ourselves in a very unhealthy position.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Relations with Korea seem to be particularly up and down these days, with differences over the THAAD missile defense system, and the AIIB. How much are the Koreans hedging because of the troubles with Washington that you describe?
CRONIN: Every government has its domestic challenges. President Park certainly is facing a slew of them. She has seen a lot of opportunities in improving relations with China. There are economic incentives. Better ties with Beijing also give Seoul some leverage over North Korea. And finally, President Park is hedging against the US-Japan relationship. She wants to gain some leverage with Washington, to get the US to put pressure on Japan, both to atone for history, and to not move in a direction on defense issues that makes Seoul uncomfortable.
Our alliance with South Korea is strong, but our relationship with Seoul has certainly been better than it is right now. We do not have the kind of high-level, deep trust with Seoul that we should. This is partly attributable to President Park’s governing style of reliance on a very small inner circle, though Washington certainly shares part of the blame.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What explains Seoul’s reluctance about THAAD?
CRONIN: Missile defense is something that is very much in the national security interests of Korea, and in the interest of protecting US forces in Korea. It is an important factor in deterring North Korea, as Pyongyang grows its missile, and potentially nuclear weapons stockpile. We need missile defense systems. And as North Korea’s missile capabilities expand in both range and quantity, we need multi-layered missile defense. Ultimately that means something like the THAAD system, to provide defense at a higher altitude over a larger area than a system like the Patriot 3 batteries. This does not threaten China in any way, though Chinese perceptions may be a different matter. We need to consistently, vociferously, and relentlessly make the case that THAAD has nothing to do with China. The issue is deterring North Korea’s ability to threaten the South, to threaten US forces in the region, and to perhaps even threaten US territory.
As a matter of political reality, President Park, having moved closer to China for the reasons I mentioned, probably will not accept US deployment of THAAD until the next crisis. We have once again run into a messaging problem. We probably have been talking with the South Koreans about THAAD, but we then seek plausible deniability by saying that it has not formally been on the bilateral agenda so it has really not been talked about. The point of that is to have a guise to hide behind so we don’t have to acknowledge talking about a system that is so politically sensitive in South Korea. It is sensitive for President Park, because she doesn’t want to have to explain the situation every time she talks with Chinese officials.
The reality is that we ought to be preparing THAAD as a response to a serious North Korean provocation in the future, such as a fourth nuclear test, or more missile launches, including mobile missiles that would be very hard for us to strike. [North Korea fired some short-range missiles last week, shortly before US defense secretary Ashton Carter arrived in Seoul for scheduled consultations.]
All of this would justify the need for further beefing up of the missile defense network that we already have, beyond the Korean missile defense system that Seoul is committed to.
We could concentrate on interoperability, rather than an integrated regional system. That would be a bit of finesse, as it would help enable the Koreans to tell the Chinese that the system is not part of a larger, regional system aimed at China.
But it would mean that American, Korean, and Japanese forces, in a crisis, could start to network in response to an impending North Korean missile launch.
The whole issue has not been handled well. The Koreans don’t want to talk about it, and even want to deny that they are thinking about THAAD. The issue is very cumbersome to talk about.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem very surprising that Seoul showed interest in the AIIB from the beginning.
CRONIN: The Koreans have criticized the US on this in much the same way the Australians and British did. They all perceived mixed or confused messages from Washington, and thus were put in the difficult position of having to consider whether their involvement in this important initiative would risk tension with the US. The message from us should have been an emphatic “sure, go ahead.” Of course, we still hope they will press for the kinds of institutional rules that have helped them grow into prosperous G20 economies.
DISPATCH JAPAN: In the context of rocky ties right now with Seoul, what are the “pros” and “cons” of the invitation extended to Prime Minister Abe to address the Congress?
CRONIN: I think it is correct to invite the prime minister to address Congress, at the right time. Japan is our most important ally in the region. We could not have the kind of force presence that we do have in the region without Japan. Japan is a democracy, and the world’s third-largest economy. Prime Minister Abe is committed to making a contribution to peace, the way Japan has done over the past seven decades, not like the decades before that.
So an invitation to the prime minister is the right thing to do. The question is: Is this the right time? I think a case can be made that we should have waited until we have the Trans-Pacific Partnership in place. And it may not be the best idea to excessively highlight the announcement of the new US-Japan defense guidelines during the prime minister’s visit, since defense is not necessarily the message we want underscore at the time of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Next year might have been the ideal time for Prime Minister Abe to address Congress.
During this year’s visit, we could have showered the prime minister with all sorts of attention, while putting pressure on Congress to pass TPA, followed by TPP. And we could have unveiled the new defense guidelines as the new framework for thinking through new roles and missions for this critical bilateral alliance.
In this way, we could have gotten past the May and August anniversaries of the end of the War. Remember, Prime Minister Abe will be back in Washington, probably repeatedly during his time in office. We could have ensured an arrangement for him to address Congress next year, hopefully with TPP having been adopted, and with the new defense guidelines operational.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How do you expect the prime minister to deal with history issues?
CRONIN: Nobody knows for sure, except Prime Minister Abe himself. I think he is his own counsel on this matter. But clearly people like Professor Shinichi Kitaoka, who is acting chairman of the commission that is supposed to advise the prime minister on this, is fully aware of the sensitivity of the issue. I was in Japan recently, and Professor Kitaoka agreed with the three points I raised. First, the prime minister has to make sure that he atones with deep respect and remorse for the past. This wouldn’t have to be an endless part of a speech or statement, but the prime minister will have to be sincere and believable. Secondly, he could then go on and talk with quiet pride – but plenty of pride – about the contributions Japan has made to order and stability in the international system over the past 70 years. And third, I think he needs to put forth something that would be a positive, rules-based vision for all, for the future. Sincere atonement for the past, quiet pride for Japan’s seven decades of contribution to international order, and a positive, inclusive vision for the future.
Those are the three ingredients I think are key, and I think Kitaoka Sensei understands this, and would recommend it.
I also think the prime minister understands this, but until he actually says these things, no one knows what political calculations may come into play, and change the perception of what he says.
DISPATCH JAPAN: To be effective, do you think Prime Minister Abe would do best to use the precise language from the Murayama and Koizumi statements?
CRONIN: I don’t necessarily think there is only one way to convey sincerity and believability. But including the language from those earlier statements is the clearest way to signal continuity, and not to raise concerns. Conversely, deviating from the earlier statements does not gain Japan anything, but could cause lots of trouble. That would be the surest path to invite criticism at a time when Japan should be applauded for the contributions the country has made over the past 70 years.