US-Japan Relations and Obama’s Visit to Japan
Image Credit: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

US-Japan Relations and Obama’s Visit to Japan


U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan, which begins today, has been the subject of both excitement and anxiety.

For the optimists, the first state visit to Japan by a U.S. president since Bill Clinton in 1996, will serve to reaffirm the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance as well as of Japan’s cherished privilege of being America’s best friend in Asia, especially in the context of an increasingly volatile geopolitical situation in this region.

For the less optimistic observers, the mere fact that the strength of the alliance needs to be reaffirmed is in itself a worrying indication, given the unmistakable signs of glitches and cracks that have begun to appear. The unprecedented difficulty Japan had getting Obama to agree to a stopover in Tokyo during this tour of Asia is cited as a telltale sign of the unease that is beginning to permeate bilateral ties.

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Shifting Alliances in Asia

Obama comes to Asia with a vital mission of reassuring both allies and adversaries of Uncle Sam’s commitment to maintaining order in this part of the world. That will not be easy, since recent crises in Libya, Syria and Ukraine have only demonstrated how weary America has become of flexing its muscles – even when challenged. And in Asia especially, U.S. resolve is constantly being tested and challenged by China and North Korea.

Be it in Northeast or Southeast Asia, Obama will be met with growing doubt over America’s commitment. This has led several countries to start reshuffling the cards of existing alliances. America itself, while asking its allies to beef up their defense against China, is at the same time seeking Beijing’s cooperation in managing major international issues. South Korea, a traditional U.S. ally, is drawing closer to China in a move that, viewed from Washington, could threaten the solidarity of the U.S.-Korea-Japan alliance, especially when this Sino-South Korean rapprochement is being partly fuelled by their shared anger at revisionist Japan. North Korea, too, has thrown out its traditional alliance with China and has shown signs of warming to Japan in what may jeopardize the outcome of the Chinese-led Six Party Talks over the North Korean nuclear issue. Meanwhile, the Ukraine crisis has raised the possibility of a strategic rapprochement between Russia and China in the developing context of a new Cold War. Taking an ambiguous stand on the Ukraine crisis, China will thus be able to play the “Russian card” to bargain for more U.S. concessions in the management of Asian affairs, for example in its simmering territorial feud with Japan.

In the case of Japan, the uncertainty of U.S. resolve to defend the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands against an eventual Chinese assault has been amplified in the past year by the uncomfortable feeling of growing U.S. coldness towards the rightwing nationalism of Shinzo Abe’s leadership. This feeling of insecurity has motivated Abe’s worldwide diplomatic drive in search of additional allies. Among others, this drive has led the Japanese leader to develop a particularly warm relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in the thinly veiled hope of securing Russian support in Japan’s feud with China.

In this changing geopolitical landscape in Asia, what can Obama and Abe expect from their talks in Tokyo?

Patching up the Alliance

Abe’s most pressing concern is a reconfirmation of the solidity of the U.S.-Japan alliance. This is all the more important because this solidity has faced some serious tests following growing U.S. nervousness with the regional tensions enflamed by Abe’s display of overly nationalistic ideology. Irritation within the liberal Obama administration against the rightwing Japanese leader has been building ever since Abe returned to power in December 2012. The Japanese leader’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 was yet another test of U.S. patience. With the developing cracks in the bilateral relationship, Abe actually risks going down in history as the postwar Japanese leader with the worst ties with America. This can be politically fatal in a country where personal ties with the U.S. president are seen as a critical asset for any leader.

Besides the question of personal chemistry between Obama and Abe, the “discordance” surfacing within the alliance risks sending the wrong message to the Chinese, who are watching for any sign of weakness in U.S.-Japan relations which might help them contest Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Tokyo’s priority will therefore be a joint declaration by the two leaders in reaffirming the healthy state of the alliance. Obama will no doubt grant this assurance, although it will be carefully worded to avoid the U.S. being automatically dragged into an open conflict between Japan and China over the disputed territory. In exchange, the Japanese leadership will be invited to keep quiet on sensitive matters (such as comfort women, the Tokyo Tribunal, and the Rape of Nanjing) that unnecessarily flame emotions in this volatile part of the world.

Besides the U.S.-Japan relationship, the U.S. president will also be keen to patch up the U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance, which has been badly damaged by the emotional feud between Seoul and Tokyo over Japan’s attitude towards its wartime past. Obama has already used the “bait” of his stopover in Tokyo to force a reluctant Abe to swallow his hawkish nationalism in order to achieve a superficial show of Japan-South Korea reconciliation prior to his visit to the two squabbling allies. One of his priorities now in Northeastern Asia is to maintain a strong U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance in the face of both China and North Korea. The last thing he needs is to see is this alliance further damaged by anachronistic obsessions that are untranslatable outside of Japan.

Defense and Security

No U.S.-Japan summit can pass without addressing Japan’s role on security matters and its share of defense efforts in its alliance with America. The U.S. president will certainly appreciate the efforts deployed by Abe to shed Japan’s Constitutional restraints on taking up a larger role in international security, thus relieving America of some of its burden.

But with this appreciation, the U.S. president will also have to temper his Japanese ally’s headlong rush to beef up its military capability, so as not to arouse unnecessary alarm in the region. The way Abe has strung the defense effort to an overdose of nationalism that has already caused alarm will make Obama’s task all the more delicate.

In welcoming Abe’s Japan’s more active role in international security, the U.S. president also needs to weigh the likelihood of the junior partner in the alliance trying to use this new leverage to emerge as an equal – and therefore more assertive – partner.

Departing from the Postwar Regime?

It is not certain that this topic will be taken up at the April 24 summit, but when meeting Abe, Obama will certainly bear in mind the latter’s professed agenda of a “departure from the postwar regime.” Judging from the declarations of many in Abe’s inner circle, this could mean a clear denial of the postwar order that America painstakingly built after the last world war, including the indictment of Japan’s wartime deeds. The most visible element of this agenda is Japanese conservative politicians’ insistence on honoring war criminals indicted by the American occupiers.

In this sense, the notorious U.S. “disappointment” voiced following Abe’s December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine can be seen as a first step taken by the U.S. to counter the revisionist trends in Japan.

A Difficult Deal on TPP

Japan’s eagerness to patch up cracks in the sacrosanct U.S.-Japan alliance will be exploited by Obama to force Japanese concessions in the difficult negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Economic Partnership. The economically embattled Obama, facing mid-term elections this year, needs to force Japan to open its protected market for farm products, while Abe had promised Japan’s strong farming constituency that he would defend these “sanctuaries.”

Both leaders having staked their political survival on this issue, the prospect of a breakthrough now seems hopelessly remote. Here again, Japanese bargaining power has been weakened by Abe’s controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and the shadow it has cast over U.S.-Japan relations. Abe finds himself in a position of having to give more on TPP to court U.S. favor and repair the damage done to bilateral ties.

Ukraine Crisis

The two leaders will inevitably discuss the Ukraine crisis and its fallout. Understandably, Obama will press Abe for his unwavering loyalty to the G7 in condemning and sanctioning Russia, and Abe will attempt to save what he can of his newfound friendship with Vladimir Putin, who is scheduled to visit Japan this fall.

Abe will be torn between his new Russian friendship (on which he counts to negotiate the return of the Northern islands occupied by the former Soviet Union as well the supply of badly needed Siberian natural gas) and the imperative of joining the U.S. in condemning the Russian land grab. There is good reason for Japan to fear the way the Russians got away with the annexation of Crimea: The impunity enjoyed by the Russians risks encouraging the Chinese to do the same with the Japanese-administered Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

On this issue, Obama will also have to move with care. Abe is currently the only G7 member to remain on relatively good terms with Putin. If Abe is to be forced to abandon this friendship, an isolated Russia would move towards China, taking the world one step closer to Cold War II.

Reassuring Declarations

The Obama-Abe summit in Tokyo will no doubt produce the anticipated reassuring declarations of undying friendship and rock-solid alliance between the two countries.

Besides agreements in areas such as the TPP, regional security, Ukraine, and scientific cooperation, one of the most important aspects of this summit may be how the two leaders address the evident mutual mistrust that has emerged between them in the past year. On the one hand, Obama will need to understand the Japanese concern of being gradually supplanted by China on America’s A-list. On the other, Abe should try to understand that the Japanese “proactive pacifism” he wants to sell to the world would be appreciated and welcomed only if denuded of the hawkish nationalism that has become his trademark and which, in America’s view, is nothing more than troublemaking in the delicate politics of Asia.

In this respect, it is worth noting that, during his very short stay, Obama will find time to visit the sprawling Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. Coming after the conspicuous October visit by his State secretary and Defense secretary to the secular Chidorigafuchi War Memorial, the U.S. president may want to subtly remind his Japanese hosts again what America, at the highest level, thinks of the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

The writer is a retired French diplomat. Born in Taiwan and educated in Vietnam and Japan, he has served in the French Foreign Ministry and in French diplomatic missions in Japan, the U.S.A, Singapore and China.

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