From the standpoint of his political image back home, the February 22 summit meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Obama was a big success for the Japanese leader. Abe was able to bolster his standing with the Japanese public and within his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as someone who can effectively manage the all-important US-Japan alliance. He projected the image of a strong leader by forcefully proclaiming that Japan “is back,” and that he has restored trust in the US-Japan relationship by reversing three years of supposed alliance disorder engendered by the Democratic Party of Japan.
The big headline in Japan was that Abe had successfully secured from Obama a statement clarifying that Tokyo would not have to make any unilateral concessions on tariff reductions as a precondition for joining negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
But the heavy focus on the joint statement on trade distorted the overall picture of the summit.
Indeed, walking down the TPP avenue so quickly was not Abe’s preference. It was the path he had to take if he were to demonstrate that the US-Japan alliance “is back,” since the White House made TPP its priority.
All along, Abe wanted to demonstrate alliance revival by pushing collective self-defense (his "gift" was to be a public statement of Japan's willingness to use its missile defense to try to shoot down any North Korean ballistic missile aimed at US territory), and to get a strong US statement specifically criticizing China, by name, for its East China Sea maritime provocations.
The White House would have none of it, and pushed for the public agenda to focus on North Korea, cooperation on other aspects of global security, and economic policy, especially trade.
Abe had to adjust. The word in political circles in Tokyo is that Japanese negotiators secured the final wording of the joint statement on TPP roughly ten days ago, which emboldened Abe to begin pushing in the days leading up to the summit for the LDP to accept Japan’s entry into the TPP negotiations. Roughly half of the LDP’s Diet members oppose TPP, fearful of a backlash from the country’s powerful agriculture lobby.
Because Obama wanted to focus on TPP and economics so heavily, Abe had to allow TPP into the forefront if he hoped to demonstrate back home his ability to manage the alliance. Obama mentioned that the “highest priority” between the two countries is to restore healthy economic growth. The White House wants Japan, which still has the world’s third-largest economy, to join TPP, though not at the cost of watering down the low-tariff philosophy behind the prospective agreement.
Abe would have preferred to avoid tackling the complicated domestic politics of TPP until after critical Upper House elections to be held by next July. But he found he couldn’t do that and also successfully stage-manage his appearance in DC. It looks now as if Abe will announce fairly soon a decision to enter the TPP talks. It remains to see just how hard Abe will push for genuine tariff reform, especially on agricultural products like rice, once the blowback from inside the LDP and from agricultural interests begins.
ARM’S DISTANCE: The TPP joint statement notwithstanding, it was hard to miss that Obama kept Abe at arm's distance during the summit.
One: There was no joint press conference. Last year, on April 30, while he was readying for an ultra-secret midnight departure for Afghanistan that night, President Obama took the time for a 30-minute joint press conference with then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Obama praised the alliance, joked easily with Noda, and promoted the "joint vision" that had been announced just days before by the "2+2" meeting between the foreign and defense ministers of the two countries.
This time, with Abe, Obama did not take the time for a press conference.
Two: Oval Office theater. In a brief Oval Office appearance with Abe, Obama mentioned North Korea, cooperation on Afghanistan, and the high priority of promoting economic growth. He spoke not one word about the Senkakus, China, Okinawa, or even a "joint vision" of the sort announced with Noda. Abe tried his best to criticize China, very indirectly, but adhered to US desires to not rile-up Beijing. Obama took one question from a small press “pool,” which was on the looming US budget sequestration. He answered at length, but said nothing about Abe, Japan, or Asia. Obama directed the second and final question toward Abe.
Three: Neither Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry took the seemingly easy step of reiterating the January 18 statement by then-Secretary of State Clinton outlining American opposition to any effort at unilateral change of Japan's administrative control of the Senkakus. This was a far-cry from Abe's initial desire for a strong statement from Obama specifically mentioning China.
Four: The White House surely gave Abe a carefully worded statement that the prime minister can use at home to push for TPP entry. But this was a case of Abe adapting to the US agenda. Abe did not want to be in a position of promoting TPP before the Upper House elections, but that's where he finds himself.
Obama embraced the US-Japan alliance, but did not embrace Abe.