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Before President Barack Obama leaves Tokyo on Friday, he may want to take a selfie with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan’s strongest leader in a decade. Abe’s aggressive policies of monetary easing, stimulus spending, and structural reform, nicknamed Abenomics, won plaudits as a new approach to Japan’s two-decade long economic slump, even though they resulted in a mere 0.7 percent GDP growth in 2013. His approval ratings have hovered around 60 percent, and his firm stance on the Senkakus, disputed islands claimed by China but administered by Japan, have earned him support from a populace worried about Beijing’s military growth and modernization.
Abe’s second bite at the prime ministerial apple — he had a disappointing 366-day term in 2006-2007 — has resulted in domestic success. Internationally, however, his foreign and security policies have been far more controversial. Not to put too fine a point on it, Abe is loathed and feared in Seoul and Beijing, and his stock in Washington has been shaky. But Abe 2.0 is here to stay. The world needs to learn to live with him, not least because it will probably result in a more stable Asia.
It is a poorly kept secret in Washington that the Obama administration has found it hard to trust Abe. Some of that is his own doing, like his December visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of millions of Japanese war dead lay enshrined, along with 14 Class-A war criminals. Some of Washington’s distaste derives from ill-considered and provocative statements by Abe’s aides: Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga’s February comment that Abe is considering revising a 1993 apology for sexual enslavement of “comfort women” during World War II was especially galling. (Abe later backed away, saying his government would not revise the apology.) There is also discomfort with Abe’s openly expressed patriotism, and a concern that he will kindle aggressive nationalism in Japan.
Some of Washington’s dislike may trace back to Japan’s previous government, headed by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which irritated Washington by needlessly renegotiating a 2006 agreement to rebase U.S. Marines inside Okinawa. But the administration seems to believe that Japan’s contributions to future peace and stability in Asia pale in comparison to China’s potential. Therefore, the thinking goes, Washington should focus primarily on Beijing.
In some ways, however, Abe is giving the Obama administration what it wants. He has vigorously upgraded Japan’s security policy: In December, his administration released the country’s first national security strategy, articulating a policy of “proactive pacifism,” which sounds to many like an oxymoron. He has established a national security council and has updated and released a proposal from his first term to allow the country to engage in collective self-defense with allies and partners. This would let the county’s naval forces, for example, shoot down a missile heading for U.S. Navy ships or American soil.
Particularly pleasing to Washington, Abe has firmly tackled the thorny issue of bases, securing the local approval of a new air station for U.S. Marines in northern Okinawa. While the base remains far from ready, Abe has showed more willingness to disregard anti-American local opinion than his predecessors. He has also stuck firm to a plan of purchasing at least 40 next-generation F-35 fighters as Japan’s next front-line air defense. And in April, Tokyo ended its long-standing ban on arms exports, allowing the country’s inefficient defense sector to sell in certain foreign markets and co-produce advanced weapons systems with U.S. partners.
More importantly, when Obama sat down with Abe for sushi on April 23, he hopefully recognized that the Japanese prime minister may represent the last, best hope for keeping alive the administration’s much touted rebalance, or pivot, to Asia. Since its launch in 2011, U.S. and foreign pundits have criticized the rebalance for being more rhetoric than substance. But now, it has come under sharper scrutiny in light of a weak U.S. response to the Ukrainian crisis, failure to influence the outcome of the Syrian civil war, and negotiations with Iran that many have criticized for being too permissive. The challenges facing the administration have exposed the fallacy that the United States could really “pivot” away from any part of the world and remain a superpower. In short, the United States needs help in Asia.
Only with strong partners willing to share the burdens of maintaining stability in Asia will the rebalance survive. And of all the United States’ allies and partners, only Abe seems up to the challenge, and only Japan has the material wealth to make a real difference. A more proactive Japan could help in maritime patrolling, intelligence gathering and sharing, and training of partner forces, among other possibilities. Obama should encourage Abe to become more regionally focused, and to think about how the U.S.-Japan alliance could shape Asia’s security environment. Tolerating Abe might give the Obama administration the option of substantively engaging with Asia over the next three years, as opposed to proclaiming U.S. involvement, but never quite delivering.
Reconciliation between U.S. and Japanese leaders might also help relations with South Korea and China. Until Obama’s team strong-armed South Korean President Park Geun-hye into a March sit-down with Abe, the two leaders had not talked since coming to power a year earlier. Korean-Japanese relations are at their worst in decades, fueled by mistrust and a lack of resolution over wartime issues. Yet Park, too, must recognize that Japan is naturally South Korea’s best partner in Asia. The two societies share similar liberal values, an alliance with the United States, and common threats, including North Korea and China.
A meeting of the minds among the United States, South Korea, and Japan could also have a huge effect on Sino-Japanese relations. Besides a conflict over North Korea, the most likely spot for a clash in East Asia is the Senkakus. Chinese President Xi Jinping has steadily increased the pressure on Japan since assuming office in November 2012, including declaring an air defense identification zone over the Senkakus and a large part of the East China Sea last November. Chinese patrol vessels continue to sail into waters around the islands and are met by Japanese coast guard ships. One accident could result in a clash that would unleash fiery nationalist passions in both countries. Given the lack of trust between Xi and Abe, any clash might be hard to resolve.
Having the world’s second- and third-largest economies on a collision course is in no one’s interest. Obama’s trip to the region will be a success if he inaugurates a new working partnership with Abe, and in doing so, convinces others to accept him as well.
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