Abe must reestablish trust with Obama

The article was originally posted on The Japan News on April 1, 2014

  • Yuki TATSUMI
  • Senior Research Fellow
    Yuki TATSUMI
  • [Expertise]
    Foreign Affairs and National Security

On March 25, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a trilateral summit with U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye in The Hague. It did not lead to a breakthrough in the tension between Abe and Park. Nonetheless, this trilateral summit was considered a small yet critical step for the three countries to once again begin policy coordination to address security concerns in Northeast Asia, particularly North Korea.
Abe will have another chance to meet Obama in a month, when Obama visits Tokyo in late April. Abe should utilize these summit meetings to jump-start the process of reestablishing a sense of confidence with Obama, resetting the tone of U.S.-Japan relations.
Since Abe and Obama held their last bilateral meeting in St. Petersburg in September 2013, the atmosphere surrounding U.S.-Japan relations have greatly changed. There seems to be an increasing disconnect between Tokyo and Washington, particularly since Abe's visit to Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26 last year.
In Washington, concern has resurfaced about Abe's capacity to make decisions based on broad strategic calculations. Many in the United States were frustrated by Abe's visit to Yasukuni Shrine, because it only handicapped U.S. efforts to build a broad coalition in the Asia-Pacific region to China's increasingly assertive behavior, including its surprise announcement of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in November 2013.
It also nullified, from the U.S. perspective, Washington's discreet diplomatic efforts over the past year to urge South Korea to stop demonizing Japan, and consider the strategic importance of a robust U.S.-Japan relationship, as well as a strong U.S.-ROK alliance, to deter Seoul's top security concern-North Korea.
The fact that Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine despite concerns having been expressed to his closest advisers in the government particularly perplexed officials in Washington, some of whom began to ask whether Abe intends to challenge the postwar international system built upon the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty.
In Tokyo, frustration with the Obama administration spiked following the issuance of a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo expressing "disappointment" with Abe's Yasukuni visit. Combined with the U.S. government's uncoordinated response to China's announcement of the ADIZ, the statement was interpreted as an indication that the Obama administration simply fails to appreciate Japan's acute security concerns. It was also seen as showing that the Obama administration doesn't understand that Abe's Yasukuni visit was intended to reaffirm Japan's commitment to its most important postwar principle: resolving Japan's differences with other nations through nonmilitary means.
Some blamed the United States for being influenced too much by Chinese and Korean public diplomacy campaigns throughout the United States. Others attributed the Obama administration's perceived lack of understanding to its being Democratic, implying that a Republican administration might have been more understanding and sympathetic toward Japanese views.
Such an atmosphere of divergence between the United States and Japan does not benefit either country's national interests. As the recently released U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) stated, the U.S. military presence in the Western Pacific-so much of which is anchored in its forward-deployed forces in Japan-will continue to serve as the anchor for U.S. defense strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. In this region, for the sake of U.S. security strategy and to fully optimize the capability of U.S. military capabilities, a robust alliance relationship with Japan is absolutely critical.
Even beyond narrowly defined national security interests, a strong and confident Japan will be a powerful U.S. ally in buttressing the regional and global order, which is based on internationally accepted norms and rules.
The upcoming opportunities for Obama and Abe to have a face-to-face meeting will serve as an excellent chance to begin rectifying the gap that has been created and seems to be widening between the two leaders. In the upcoming U.S.-Japan summit, Abe will have a chance to personally reaffirm his commitment to his vision for a Japan that has a robust economy. He also can use this opportunity to articulate his determination to defend Japan's sovereignty, but do so in a pragmatic and unprovocative manner.
Obama, for his part, should utilize the summit to personally communicate to Abe that he not only values Japan as a critical partner but also appreciates Abe's initiatives and leadership to revitalize the Japanese economy; implement structural reform, which is difficult domestically; and take concrete measures to enable Japan to deepen its defense ties with the United States.
When Abe returned to power in December 2012, a similar disconnect existed between the United States and Japan-Washington was unsure of Abe's priorities, and Tokyo was frustrated with Washington's apparent hesitance to embrace Abe. A short but very productive discussion between Abe and Obama during Abe's visit to Washington in February 2013 dramatically changed that atmosphere, energizing the bureaucracies of the two countries to address issues that are often politically difficult, including Japan's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the relocation of Futenma Air Station in Okinawa. A positive personal interaction between Abe and Obama during Obama's Japan visit could trigger a similar rejuvenation.

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