President Barack Obama was not happy when he left Tokyo 10 days ago, deeply frustrated that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not make the difficult concessions necessary to show real progress in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations.
Less-talked about is the policy package Obama gave Abe for what appears to be little in return. To hear people around Abe tell it, the prime minister could not have been happier about Obama’s commitment to the defense of Japan in its dispute with China over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands. High-profile American support for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense strengthened Abe domestically in his political fight to vanquish the country’s long-standing ban in this area. Obama appears to have learned what Abe advisor Kunihiko Miyake calls the “merits and effectiveness” of “silent diplomacy” when it comes to disagreements over history issues, as there was not a hint of criticism of the prime minister’s stance on the divisive Yasukuni Shrine or other aspects of “historical revisionism.” And the overall endorsement of Abe’s foreign and security policies that seemed to come from Obama may be a harbinger of pressure on South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, to show more flexibility in her stance toward the prime minister.
That’s the word going around the prime minister’s inner circle. In essence: Abe took Obama for a ride.
The situation is undoubtedly a good deal more nuanced. TPP negotiations continue. Abe faces significant hurdles to secure his cherished goal of changing policy on collective self-defense. Not a few speakers at the April 30 Sasakawa Peace Foundation security conference in Washington warned that failure on the part of Abe to deal more effectively with history disputes in the region would be harmful to US-Japan relations. And Obama’s appointment of his close friend Mark Lippert to be ambassador to South Korea is part of what officials say are ongoing efforts to “drag” Tokyo into talks to improve bilateral relations with Seoul.
Suffice to say that Abe and Obama do not have a smooth working relationship.
Says a strategist with close White House ties: “The hardest issue in dealing with Japan right now is: Can you trust what this government says?”
Japan specialist Kent Calder of the School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington adds: “The perception gap between Washington and Tokyo is as wide as I have seen it in 30 years of watching U.S.-Japan relations.”
DINNER DIPLOMACY: Well before Obama and Abe dined together at Tokyo’s famed sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro on the night of April 23, in what turned out to be a failed attempt to generate some kind of personal chemistry, there was no hiding the mutual mistrust between the two national leaders.
The Obama administration was wary of Abe from the time be returned to office in December 2012, after a five year hiatus. The White House initially steered clear of the prime minister’s drive to end the ban on collective self-defense, and declined to mention the Senkakus by name even while opposing China’s coercive tactics to challenge Japan’s administrative control of the islands.
Half-way through 2013 the White House uneasiness had waned somewhat, reflected among other ways in the October 2013 bilateral “2+2” security policy statement, which welcomed Japan’s review of the ban on collective self-defense.
But doubts about Abe returned with a fury in late December, when the prime minister brushed aside heated suggestions from Vice President Joe Biden and visited Yasukuni Shrine. Abe, who is bitter about what he considers hectoring from Washington about his nationalist convictions, used his favorite press outlet to communicate his doubts about the diplomatic competence of the Obama administration in Northeast Asian affairs. Tensions escalated early this year when several of Abe’s appointees to leadership positions at national broadcaster NHK made inflammatory statements about history issues, and when the Abe government cast doubts on its commitment to the 1993 Kono Statement concerning “comfort women.”
The mutual apprehension entered a kind of suspended animation in March, when the White House was able to bring Abe and Park together for a trilateral summit with Obama in The Hague. Abe and Park agreed that officials from their respective foreign ministries would begin talks on issues of mutual interest, including “comfort women,” though US officials report that Tokyo’s follow-through on that commitment has been less-than enthusiastic.
Republicans in Washington tend to argue that the tension with Abe largely stems from White House mismanagement, and that Abe prefers to work with the GOP. But the White House is quick to point out that with George W. Bush in office, the US clashed with Abe over the “comfort women” issue in 2007, during Abe’s first run as prime minister. “Abe felt totally betrayed by Bush,” a person close to the situation says.
Harvard University’s Joseph Nye, a well-known advocate of expanded US-Japan security ties, argues that Abe made the mistake of taking a solid security program and “wrapping it in old, 1930s wrapping paper.” Nye, who was not available for an interview, forwarded by email a Japan Times story based on a discussion he held with the paper. A critic of Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, Nye said: “Only Japan can isolate Japan and it’s doing a pretty good job of it.”
SIZING UP ABE: Going into Obama’s April 23-25 visit to Tokyo, a loose consensus about Abe seems to have jelled in the administration, guiding the White House approach. Among the features: Abe has a very complex view of the United States, one that is quite far from a one-dimensional “pro-American” stance; Abe is motivated in large part by a desire to restore Japanese pride, and regain respect for Japan in security affairs; Abe believes it is unfair that Japan is singled out for its wartime behavior, that the country is saddled with a pacifist Constitution rooted in the country’s defeat, and that Japan should end the diplomacy of “apology and compensation”; Abe wants to ensure that the United States never again takes Japan for granted, or bypasses Japan on the way to Beijing. “He is furious about what he thinks is a lack of American respect for Japan,” someone close to the White House says; For all the talk in Tokyo about expanding Japan’s defense capabilities in the context of the alliance, Abe is trying to build up Japan’s independent capabilities; The US should take Abe at his word, and “drive” the alliance in the direction Abe says he wants it to go; Abe is not dangerous. Unlike China, he is not trying to undermine American power; But, Abe is challenging; A major factor inhibiting improved diplomacy in the region is concern in Beijing and Seoul about Abe’s unpredictability, that he might greet overtures with something provocative, such as another visit to Yasukunki Shrine.
Based on this assessment, the White House concluded that Obama should be frank, forthright, and to the point about American priorities: progress on TPP, no unnecessary escalation of tension with China around the Senkakus, and a serious effort to resolve the “comfort women” issue with South Korea, thereby setting the stage for enhanced security dialogue between the two countries.
As one person familiar with White House thinking put it: “The idea was to say to Abe: ‘Look, we support Japan. We support the alliance. Don’t mess around with these visits to Yasukuni. Get your act together. Rebuild the relationship with South Korea and China. And you better follow through on TPP.’”
THE TRADE TALKS: Obama approached the trade talks with Abe in an awkward position. On the one hand, the president personally had a adopted a very tough line, insisting on nothing less than a “high standard” TPP agreement. US trade negotiators have stuck to a similar stance. (Asahi Shimbun reports, but the White House has not confirmed, that Obama asked Abe to stay behind at the conclusion of the trilateral Obama-Abe-Park talks in The Hague, and spent 10 minutes quite forcefully driving home this point to the prime minister, who remained noncommittal.)
On the other hand, there were plenty of signs, and forecasts, that nothing close to a US-Japan breakthrough would occur in Tokyo. Japan’s economics minister Akira Anmari had said as much on April 10, at the conclusion of a heated round of talks with US Trade Representative Michael Froman. “The US-Japan summit is one important juncture,” he told reporters, “but it is not a pre-set goal.” Many analysts in Washington had warned it was not realistic to expect Japan to make its best offer without Obama first having secured trade negotiating authority from Congress, or risk having Congress come back with demands that the intended “best” offer be made better.
The political mood in Tokyo did not indicate a looming compromise from Japan. Four days before Obama’s arrival a columnist in Abe’s favorite newspaper, Sankei Shimbun, argued that “the US is behaving no differently than it did in the era of Commodore Mathew Perry, when it was out to ‘open up the closed and backward Japanese market as a civilized nation.’” Abe himself had shown no inclination to tackle the powerful agriculture lobby.
At a minimum, the White House wanted Abe to make clear that he agreed with the goal of a “high standard” agreement that would boost Japan’s economy via agricultural reform. US trade negotiators hoped that their Japanese counterparts would signal their intent to make major concessions, even if the concessions were conditional on Obama winning acceptance from Congress.
During his joint press conference with Abe, Obama irritated Japanese officials with a blunt statement about US goals. “I’ve been very clear and honest that American manufacturers and farmers need to have meaningful access to markets that are included under TPP, including here in Japan…That’s my bottom line, and I can’t accept anything less.” Obama went on to say: “Prime Minister Abe is committed to renewing Japan’s economy, and TPP is a vital part of that.”
Abe, by contrast, spoke in broad terms about how the US and Japan share “basic values and strategic interests.” He said nothing about the TPP helping to revitalize the Japanese economy. Abe supporters argue that the prime minister has a “broader perspective” on TPP, looking beyond the details of tariff levels to see “the political significance” of an agreement.
Not surprisingly, despite frantic negotiations that continued far longer than expected, the joint statement issued by the two countries said only that officials had “identified a path forward.” USTR Froman has done his best to spin this as a breakthrough, but few in Washington are convinced.
Taro Aso, the famously loose-lipped finance minister, summed up what many around Abe believe: “Obama does not have sufficient power to form consensus in the United States.”
Meanwhile, in response to the last question at the joint press conference, Abe gave a spirited defense of his visit to Yasukuni Shrine, while Obama could only stand silently and listen.
SENKAKUS: Obama’s explicit reference to the Senkakus as falling under the terms of the US-Japan Security Treaty was, as the president said, a restatement of long-standing US policy. But it was something the White House declined to do when Abe visited Washington in February 2013, and therefore raised appreciative eyebrows in Tokyo. But the US remains concerned that Tokyo be wise to not unnecessarily escalate tensions with China. Moreover, many US officials are frustrated with Japan’s official stance that there is “no dispute” with China over the islands. “Just to sit there and say there is no dispute is ridiculous,” says Joseph Nye. Sources close to the situation say that Japanese officials “have been playing a lot of silly games,” trying to get the US to shift its position from official neutrality to recognition of Japanese sovereignty over the islands. To the opposite, the US would prefer Japan to tacitly acknowledge a dispute by challenging China to take the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), a move Tokyo has been unwilling to take.
COLLECTIVE SELF-DEFENSE: The US support for Abe’s effort to exercise the right to collective self-defense had little to do with the summit dynamics; Washington has been moving in this direction for months, with an eye on including Japan in planning for contingencies on the Korean Peninsula. But the high-profile US stance came at a sensitive time, and, intended or not, amounted to siding with the prime minister in a heated domestic policy dispute.
For many in Japan, exercising the right of collective self-defense is a practical, incremental step in the evolution of Japan’s security policy, made necessary by advances in weaponry and changes in the strategic environment around Japan.
For Abe, by contrast, lifting Japan’s ban on collective self-defense, amounts to what one Japanese official calls “a symbolic task that will free Japan from the postwar regime established under the occupation policy.”
Abe’s zeal on the issue has resulted in a backlash even within his own Liberal Democratic Party, not to mention ruling coalition partner New Komeito. Recent polls show that public opposition to Abe’s position has risen to well over 50%.
Renowned Japan scholar Ezra Vogel, who supports lifting the ban on collective self-defense, recently summed up the American dilemma on the issue. “From the standpoint of the United States, there is the worry that Abe will do something provocative toward China or South Korea.”
COMFORT WOMEN: Under intense pressure from Washington, Abe paved the way for the March trilateral summit in The Hague by stating before the Diet that his government would abide by the 1993 Kono Statement regarding “comfort women.”
In a joint press conference with Park Geun-hye in Seoul, following his visit to Tokyo, Obama made clear his hope that dialogue will deepen between Japan and Korea, and that the Abe government will make a sincere effort to resolve the “comfort women” issue.
Strong support for the Kono Statement runs counter to Abe’s personal convictions, and could result in a backlash among his own conservative base. On March 28, one of Abe’s closest collaborators, Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura, stated that the stance adopted by the prime minister before the Diet does not amount to a unified government position. Respected analyst Park Cheol Hee of Seoul National University wrote in an April 4th commentary that “maintaining a unified, consistent position regarding the Kono statement is likely to prove to be a political challenge for Abe.”
It will be a political challenge for US-Japan relations as well.
LOOKING AHEAD: Overall, President Obama’s visit to Tokyo served to emphasize the enduring nature of the US-Japan alliance, but also served to highlight the extent to which the White House and Prime Minister Abe have sharply differing perspectives on critical issues. Former Japanese diplomat Kazuhiko Togo wrote on May 6 for the Pacific Forum newsletter PacNet that “all in all, there is no clear evidence that trust and confidence between Japan and the US were enhanced by the president's visit,” adding, that “the two countries have much to do to make the Japan-US alliance really solid and trustworthy.”