With North Korea having recently tested a third nuclear device and China acting provocatively in the East China Sea, there will be plenty for Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe and President Obama to talk about when they meet at the White House later today.
The summit will provide an opportunity for the US and Japan to reaffirm their bilateral security alliance and the need for regional peace, stability, and security.
However, below the surface, there is a great deal of unease about Prime Minister Abe in the White House, and at the State Department and the Pentagon. Concern is running high that Abe’s views on history, and his nationalist feelings toward Korea and China, could complicate relations in Northeast Asia as Japan pursues what are otherwise modest and logical expansions of security responsibilities and capabilities in the region.
Some Asia specialists from the Bush administration who know Abe, and worked with him while he was chief cabinet secretary and later briefly prime minister in 2006-2007, are fairly confident that Abe will act pragmatically, and not let his ideology cause problems for Japanese diplomacy.
But few people in the Obama administration know Abe, and top officials are somewhat skeptical that Abe (and those around him, such as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and education minister Hakubun Shimomura) will be able to restrain their nationalist impulses and act with a clear strategic vision for stability in the region. As Michael Cucek pointed out recently, Abe himself declared in his “new” book (a virtual reprint of an earlier tome) that his return to power is not simply a replacement of the discredited Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), but “is a fight to return the country called Japan to the hands of the citizens of Japan from out of the grip of postwar history.” Abe’s long-standing “history denier” perspective has not changed.
For this reason, the Obama administration, while squarely reaffirming the alliance, wants to avoid any statements or symbolic gestures during Abe’s brief visit that could appear provocative toward Beijing, or be seen as an endorsement of Abe’s personal political agenda.
DIFFICULT PREPARATIONS: To begin with, the White House was never terribly enthusiastic about a visit from Abe. Tokyo pushed very hard for a January summit, but the White House said the president’s schedule would not permit that. The White House attitude amounted to: Abe virtually invited himself, so we could hardly say ‘no.’
Part of the problem is that expectations in Washington are quite low of anything substantial emerging soon from Tokyo on hot-button issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade talks or basing arrangements for US forces on Okinawa. Many had assumed that this was a problem of the poor governance and weakness of the DPJ, but it is clear now that it is a broader political problem in Japan. Abe is not able or willing to push for progress on key issues at least until after next summer’s Upper House elections.
Abe had assumed, mistakenly, that his return to office, and that of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), would be met with cheers in Washington, that an “anything but the DPJ” attitude prevailed. While greater political stability is certainly welcomed by Obama administration officials, many in Washington were pretty happy with the foreign and security policies of the DPJ’s Yoshihiko Noda, who is clearly more moderate than Abe.
All of this made it difficult for senior officials to work out details for the summit. This became apparent two weeks ago, when Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jim Zumwalt and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David Helvey met in Washington with Takeo Akiba of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ro Manabe of the Ministry of Defense. When the talks ended, the Japanese officials were unusually brusque in declining to talk with gathered reporters, indicating the continued lack of clarity made it difficult to brief the press.
As late as last Friday, after the prime minister’s office had announced that Abe would visit Washington on February 21-23 and meet with Obama on the 22nd, the White House would not provide quick confirmation. That afternoon, the Japanese Embassy in Washington sent a ‘heads-up’ note to the Japanese press corps saying that “if the situation allows it to happen,” Abe would visit on February 21-23. Only later did the White House issue a statement announcing the visit. Coordination was less than smooth.
WHITE HOUSE NIXES ABE PLANS: For Abe, the visit with President Obama is important as an opportunity to demonstrate to his domestic audience that he can manage the all-important alliance with the US. However, it may turn out that the only concrete news Abe is able to bring to Washington is that the Diet will likely sign the Hague Convention provisions concerning custody arrangements of children of failed international marriages. The repeated hearing of tragic stories spurred former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to champion the cause. The DPJ had agreed to adopt legislation, and Abe has followed. But even on this issue Abe still faces hurdles, as conservatives object to “outside intervention” into family disputes, and liberals (especially the LDP’s coalition partner Komeito, have raised concerns about Japanese women victims of domestic violence.
Abe had initially hoped to trumpet his plans to lift Japan’s self-imposed ban on the exercise of the right of collective self-defense, and make clear publicly that Japan would use its missile defenses to assist the United States in the event North Korea launched a ballistic missile aimed at US territory. Abe assumed the new policy would be welcomed in Washington.
That was not the case. The Pentagon, of course, would welcome the defense planning and operational flexibility that would come from Japan exercising its right to collective self-defense. But US officials were concerned that a demonstration of support for such an initiative by Abe could be misinterpreted as endorsement of the prime minister’s broader domestic agenda, including revision of the Constitution, which could unnecessarily anger Beijing. Instead, US officials pressed to keep discussions during the summit to specific means to enhance deterrence and regional stability, including better US-Japan combined intelligence and surveillance capabilities, and training of Japanese Self-Defense Force marine capabilities.
In the same vein, Washington was not eager to back Abe’s desire for specific criticism of China’s maritime activities in the East China Sea, particularly with regard to the Senkaku islands. The Obama administration is trying to walk a very fine line between clearly warning China against efforts to unilaterally challenge Japan’s administrative control of the Senkakus, and not giving China any reason to feel threatened.
The White House is perfectly willing to reaffirm the statement made on January 18th by then-Secretary of State Clinton in a joint appearance with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. Without mentioning China by name, Clinton warned against “any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration” of the Senkakus. But in the same sentence, she went on to say that “we urge all parties to take steps to prevent incidents and manage disagreements through peaceful means.”
This is a warning to China, but it is also an effort to stay engaged with China, to let Beijing know that the US would not favor provocative actions by Japan, and to let Abe know that the US wants his government to stay cool and calm.
In the White House view, a specific reference to China might boost Abe’s domestic agenda, but would not be helpful for the alliance or for regional stability and security.
Within the Obama administration, the departure of Hillary Clinton and her influential assistant for Asian affairs Kurt Campbell has led to a subtle but important shift in the balance of power in managing Japan-related issues. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is a strong supporter of the strategy of “rebalancing” US force posture and diplomacy toward the Asia-Pacific region. Donilon is also extremely concerned about the strategic dilemma posed by China. How can the US simultaneously engage China and deter China from exercising undue heavy-handedness in the region? How best to persuade a rising China to participate in a rules-based regional and global architecture, and not create a self-fulfilling prophecy of China as an enemy?
It’s in this context that Donilon and other administration officials are wary of Abe’s hard line nationalist proclivities.
TPP AND OKINAWA: Meanwhile, the White House is frustrated that Abe will not provide an affirmative answer about Japan’s participation in the TPP trade talks, but officials there and at the State Department know that until next summer, Abe’s priority will likely be the Upper House elections. Abe does not want to anger the LDP’s rural voter base. Close to half of the LDP’s Diet delegation is opposed to TPP participation. For his part, Abe has been hinting at the possibility of making a decision on TPP prior to the elections. But the betting in Washington is that Abe is angling to garner from Obama some language hinting at flexibility in the demand that Japan put rice and other sensitive economic sectors on the negotiating table as a precondition to joining the talks. Washington is very reluctant to carve out exceptions for Japan prior to a decision by Tokyo to participate.
Many in Washington believe Abe wants Japan to eventually join TPP, if only out of the strategic recognition that TPP could be an important component of a rules-based regional security and economic architecture to which China would have to adapt. (Economic reform, which TPP could help spur, has never been in the forefront of Abe’s thinking.) But it’s unclear if and when Abe will be willing to spend the political capital required to move the issue forward.
Obama will be anxious to hear from Abe his intentions concerning TPP, but it remains unclear how the two sides will be able to meet each other’s stated political needs.
Concerning Okinawa, particularly plans to construct in the Henoko area a facility to replace the US Marine Air Station Futenma, expectations in Washington are very low.
The White House, State Department, and Pentagon were all quite upset that the Abe administration did not provide them with advance notice that Abe would not, prior to his Washington visit, send a request to Okinawa Governor Nakaima for permission to begin landfill work for the Henoko project.
Administration officials were not upset about Abe’s decision itself; that was expected. But the timing of his announcement, with no advance warning to Washington, upset US officials.
As for the Henoko project itself, the Obama administration increasingly recognizes the political reality that in all likelihood it will not be built, and has already begun serious consideration of possible alternatives. Indeed, this was discussed directly with the prime minister’s office and the foreign and defense ministries, prior to Prime Minister Noda leaving office. But the feeling in Washington and Tokyo is that Henoko cannot be publicly abandoned until an alternative is prepared, because Okinawans might conclude that the US will be staying at Futenma forever, and this perception would cause terrible problems. For now, both sides will continue to publicly support Henoko, even though both sides agree an alternative must be found.