Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to arrive in the U.S. today ahead of his meeting with President Barak Obama at the White House on Friday. The summit will be the first between the two leaders since Abe returned to power in December.
Abe had initially sought to make the U.S. the destination of his first overseas trip as Prime Minister but was reportedly rebuffed by the White House who said a trip would not be possible until after President Obama’s inauguration last month. As a result, the Japanese leader traveled to Southeast Asia instead as Tokyo looks to use common concern over China to strengthen ties with ASEAN member nations.
Abe’s trip comes at a time when Tokyo is facing a tougher regional security environment. Japan remains locked in a tense standoff with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, with few signs of a resolution in sight. The summit also takes place just a week after North Korea conducted its third nuclear tests, withmany speculating that it plans to undertake at least one more test in the near future.
The nationalistic Japanese leader has long been a strong proponent of strengthening the U.S.-Japan military relationship. Even so, the Chinese and North Korean challenges have made closer military ties with the U.S. a far more urgent matter for Tokyo.
Indeed, at Japan’s request the two sides announced they would consider revising their military treaty last November while Abe’s predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda, was still in office. At the time, Japan had said that revisions were necessary because of “qualitative changes in the security environment” since the last time the allies revisited the treaty in 1997. Working-level talks began the following month.
The U.S. has long pushed Japan to increase its security role in the region by upgrading its military forces and loosening restrictions on what types of operations they can participate in. These views are shared by Abe and, as a result of Chinese and North Korean actions, a growing number of Japanese. However, Abe’s eagerness to expand Japan’s defense role has reportedly unnerved some U.S. officials, who— while insisting they still would like the Self-Defense Forces to embrace “collective self-defense”— worry Abe’s defense policies will further worsen tensions with China and other regional powers like South Korea.
In revisiting the defense treaty, Washington will undoubtedly seek to resist Japan pressure to make a more explicit commitment to the defense of islands that Japan disputes with its neighbors. So far, the U.S. has adopted a characteristically ambiguous policy towards the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, affirming that the Islands do fall under its defense treaty with Japan, while insisting it does not take sides on territorial disputes.
Abe’s visit will also have a strong economic component to it, as the Japanese leader seeks to revise a sluggish economy that also faces long-term structural issues. Abe will want reassurances from Obama that the U.S. will continue to support his aggressive monetary policies that have come under fire from some of Tokyo’s trade partners. Abe will also seek to convince Obama to support exports of America’s natural gas to Japan, which remains highly dependent foreign energy imports.
President Obama, on the other hand, will be most concerned with getting Abe to commit Japan to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the cornerstone of Washington’s economic agenda in region. The high free trade standards the TPP requires have made it the target of certain powerful interests groups inside Japan, especially the heavily subsidized Agricultural sector. Given the leverage the U.S. has over Japan as a result of Tokyo’s standoff with China, it should not be difficult for Washington to overcome this resistance to the TPP.
Zachary Keck is assistant editor of The Diplomat. He is on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.