J. Berkshire Miller

J. Berkshire Miller


Prime Minster Abe of Japan recently met with President Obama in Washington and also gave a widely noted speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Please give us your take on the trip. Was it a success for Japan?

Abe’s visit to the U.S. achieved most of the goals that his government set out before leaving for Washington. Namely, Abe wanted to indicate in strong terms that “Japan is back” – not only in the economic sense through his program of quantitative easing and “Abenomics,” but also in geopolitical terms. The CSIS speech indicated this quite clearly. Abe underscored the importance of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) to Japan, but was careful not to acquiesce completely by walking the tightrope on joining based upon conditions and reflection at home. Abe seems to recognize that the TPP is more than mere economic engagement with the U.S. and the region, but also part of the strategic package that bolsters a more comprehensive and forward-looking bilateral partnership. The trip also allowed Abe to reaffirm the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance and how it would become increasingly relevant in light of the dynamic security landscape in East Asia. The most important of these issues to Tokyo of course is the dispute in the East China Sea and an intransigent regime in North Korea – both points were addressed during his visit with President Obama. From Abe’s perspective, the trip was mostly successful because he relayed his messages and also emphasized on a big stage that the Japan-U.S. alliance is important and should not be overlooked. However, he may have overstepped in his pre-trip interview with the Washington Post in which he called out China for its “deeply ingrained” need for conflict. Abe was more careful on China during his CSIS speech.

Sticking with Japan for the moment, Tokyo has a number of foreign policy challenges when it comes to disputed territory. These include overlapping island claims with Russia, China and South Korea. Which of these do you view as ripe for possible resolution?

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All three are somewhat unique and present different challenges. The dispute with China in the East China Sea clearly has the potential to be the most dangerous, from an economic and geopolitical perspective. Just recently, Kurt Campbell, outgoing Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, summed this up pretty clearly in an interview with the Australian: “In four years as assistant secretary I’ve faced many difficult diplomatic situations, but none more difficult than this. I’ve rarely seen diplomats on both sides (Japan and China) more white-knuckled, and on both sides the sense that no retreat or compromise is possible.” The intractability of this row seems deeply ingrained in the political fabric of both governments.

With regard to Dokdo/Takeshima dispute between South Korea and Japan, there has been considerably less bluster of late which is good news after a rocky couple of years that culminated in the short-sighted deterioration of the potential General Security of Military Information Agreement over North Korea’s WMD and missile programs last summer. Since then, both countries have elected new leaders with fresh ideas on strengthening the bilateral relationship. In South Korea, newly inaugurated President Park will most likely heed the lesson of this past summer when Japan and China were at loggerheads over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets: there are costs to the geostrategic posturing in East Asia. Similarly, Abe sent a special envoy to Seoul shortly after his election to signal Japan’s desire to improve the relationship. Seoul and Tokyo are deeply integrated with each other economically and neither side benefits from a prolonged conflict. Allowing this political conflict to worsen hurts the economies of both countries. That said, the sovereignty issue on the atoll has entrenched positions on both sides. While not as volatile or dangerous as the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, it remains highly unlikely that Japan or Korea will progress on this point in the near future.

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