Shinzo Abe Comes to Washington

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan will visit with President Obama at the White House on February 22 for their first meeting since Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) returned to power after an election in December 2012. The two leaders will address an array of security and economic issues and reaffirm the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance, which is a central pillar of Japan’s foreign policy and the U.S. rebalancing strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region premised on close cooperation with allies to maintain regional stability and prosperity. Abe pledged to strengthen ties with Washington in his recent election campaign and this visit presents an opportunity to outline an agenda for the bilateral relationship and articulate his vision for Japan’s leadership role in international affairs.

Q1: What is on the agenda?

A1: Regional security challenges will figure prominently. Obama and Abe agreed during a telephone call last week to coordinate closely on the response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test and will likely focus on tightening financial sanctions against Pyongyang and getting a strong statement out of the United Nations Security Council. They also could discuss increased tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku islands. The United States does not take a position on the question of sovereignty but has determined that the Senkakus fall within the scope of Article V of the 1960 U.S.-Japan security, which obligates the United States to defend Japan and all territories under its administrative control. Former Secretary of State Clinton and recent congressional resolutions have also emphasized that the United States will not accept unilateral efforts to alter Japan’s administrative control through coercion—a recognition that Chinese naval and paramilitary ships are becoming more aggressive near the islands. The Japanese side will want the President to reaffirm this basic U.S. stance. For his part, Abe could reassure the president of his commitment to improve ties with Beijing, something he did when he was prime minister from 2006-2007. The two leaders will also touch on bilateral security issues, including plans to realign the U.S. military presence on Okinawa and review bilateral guidelines for defense cooperation to facilitate effective cooperation between the two militaries.

One can also expect a detailed exchange on economic policy given the parallels in their respective growth strategies. Abe’s bold economic agenda, dubbed “Abenomics,” has centered on fiscal stimulus and monetary easing to combat deflation. The market has responded positively to “Abenomics” thus far but sustainable growth is likely to depend on structural reforms to boost competitiveness. Critical in that context will be Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Both governments see Japan as a logical if not indispensable participant in TPP but both sides are also stymied to some extent by domestic politics. Abe ran on a commitment not to join trade agreements that have no exceptions—a hint to farmers that the rice market would still be protected. The Obama administration has stated to Congress that participation in TPP requires all sectors to be on the table and has been insisting on a down payment from Japan (AKA “confidence-building measures”) on autos and beef before Tokyo can join TPP. The two leaders will try to find a way to finesse these rhetorical divides, though it seems unlikely that formal Japanese participation in TPP will be announced at this summit.

The dialogue with President Obama could also touch on energy issues including Abe’s plans to scrap the “zero nuclear society” policy of the previous government and reconsider the role of nuclear power in Japan’s future energy mix and ways to work with the United States and others to promote nuclear safety and nonproliferation. Bilateral cooperation on infrastructure development such as high-speed rail and LNG exports from both shale and Alaska’s North Slope could also figure in the discussion. And Abe could also settle a longstanding issue in the bilateral relationship by reporting on plans for Japan to sign the Hague Child Abduction Convention, which details procedures to address child custody issues after failed international marriages.

Q2: Why is this meeting significant?

A2: Abe currently enjoys a 70 percent approval rating and public opinion surveys indicate support for his economic agenda as his party prepares for an election in the Upper House of the Diet (parliament) this summer. A strong showing in that poll could yield a period of political stability that would be welcome by the United States after years of turnover in Tokyo that complicated efforts to craft a long-term agenda for the alliance. Abe is the fifth Japanese leader to meet with President Obama since 2009 and his primary task is to project competence and renewed confidence in Japan’s leadership role. A policy agenda focused on economic revitalization and close ties with the United States makes for a solid introduction to this new chapter in the bilateral relationship. The domestic political stakes are lower for Obama, but within Asia there is great interest in how robust the U.S.-Japan alliance will be at a time of uncertainty about Chinese intentions. As the first Asian summit of Obama’s second term, the Abe visit will be watched for indications of what to expect next from the President’s “pivot” to Asia.

Q3: What are the expectations going forward?

A3: Much of the commentary after Abe’s election victory highlighted Japan’s shift to the right and the potential implications for regional diplomacy and the alliance with the United States. Since taking office, Abe has toned down his approach to issues of history and territorial disputes with neighboring Asian countries. His main message for this visit will be that “Japan is back.” If successful, he will set that tone and the President will embrace it. The proof will unfold in the months ahead—particularly after the Upper House election in July, which will be Abe’s opportunity to secure a solid majority in both houses and a longer tenure than the one-year prime ministers who have come and gone since Junichiro Koizumi. With firmer political foundations (and the ruling LDP is expected to win in July), then Abe can do the hard work of restoring a sustainable energy strategy, reforming constraints on Japanese defense cooperation with the United States, joining TPP, resolving the Okinawa base issues, and restructuring the economy for longer-term growth. However, Japan’s problems will not ripen with age and on this trip Abe will want to demonstrate to the President and the Japanese people his determination to lead on these issues.

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and an associate professor at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. Matthew P. Goodman is the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy at CSIS. Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS Japan Chair.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Matthew P. Goodman

Matthew P. Goodman

Former Senior Vice President for Economics