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Dear Prime Minister Abe:
This week you come to Washington as prime minister of Japan for the second time. Many things have changed since your last visit in 2007. The world economy cratered, as did Japan’s. China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. America elected a president intent on ending the policies of his predecessor and expanding the role of government. Your party lost power after half a century and watched its successor fail to deliver.
You now have a “do over,” as we say in America. You have been given a second chance by Japan’s voters to restore their country to economic health and international prestige. You started off by making bold, controversial decisions to devalue Japan’s currency to help Japan become an export powerhouse again.
You also have a new chance to restore true health to Japan’s relationship with the U.S. Your predecessors, the Democratic Party of Japan, wasted their first year in power in 2009 by picking unnecessary fights with Washington over relocating U.S. Marines inside Okinawa. Near the conclusion of their short tenure, they raised fresh concerns for the alliance by enraging China after nationalizing some of the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
You have started your second term by returning to the themes of your first, including ideas about revising restrictions on Japan’s ability to engage in collective self-defense with its partners. You have reached out to Southeast Asia and talked about a larger role for Japan in the world. You have also been given some gifts by the DPJ, including their decision to purchase the F-35 stealth fighter and relax an arms-export ban that isolated Japan’s defense industry from the world.
In Washington, I hope you will seize the attention of Barack Obama—and his country—by demonstrating how Japan will continue to be a global leader and why Japan’s success is a crucial element in global stability. In particular, I hope you stress two initiatives that you are already engaged in and that matter much to the U.S.
First, stress that you plan to increase Japan’s defense budget. Explain that the uncertain environment in Asia has convinced you to end a decade of gradual reduction in defense spending. Given China’s continuing military modernization and North Korea’s ongoing nuclear testing and ballistic missile program, you have decided to allocate more than $1 billion in additional defense spending this year. This makes Japan one of America’s only major allies not cutting its defenses this year.
Your spending decision is important, because cuts to the U.S. defense budget are inevitable and it therefore needs reliable partners. The U.S. and Japan face the same threats and uncertainties, and you can tell Mr. Obama that Japan is committed to contributing more to its own defense and helping maintain peace in its neighborhood. In addition, you can emphasize that you are renewing attempts to change those Japanese laws that prevent collective self-defense.
Second, emphasize that you are drawing a line in the sea regarding the Senkaku Islands. Tell Mr. Obama that Japan will never fire the first shot, nor endanger civilian life. But neither will it allow China to upend the balance of power in the East China Sea. Make clear that even though you understand that the nationalization of the islands caused unrest in China, you understand equally that Beijing cannot be allowed to use its newfound strength to ignore international law and create a crisis.
Let Mr. Obama know that, while you recognize that both the U.S. and Japan need China as an economic partner, economic growth cannot continue unaffected as Beijing becomes more reckless and unpredictable. Yes, your actions to defend Japan’s claims in the Senkakus carry risk, but they will leave Asia a more stable place because Beijing will have to rethink its policy in the East and South China Seas.
Finally, I hope you will promise quietly to move forward on a decision to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks as well as to resolve the stalled plan to move U.S. Marines to a new base in Okinawa. Besides the economic benefits of the first, both these moves will leave Japan more integrated with America.
This is what you should say to Mr. Obama. You should be speaking to the people of Japan as much as to the President of the United States when you say it, for your actions in Washington will signal to your citizens how you intend to keep them safe as you work to rebuild Japan’s economy. If you speak in concrete terms, the White House will get the message, too.
Mr. Obama will realize that, for all of Japan’s problems, it retains enormous strengths that benefit not only itself but the U.S. as well. He will understand that while political dysfunction and budget cutting in Washington raises questions about America’s future role in Asia, Japan stands ready to help preserve the liberal system that has made the Asia-Pacific region the most dynamic on earth.
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