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Foreign Policy

Not-So-Fast Friends

May 05 , 2015

On April 26, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe started his eight- day trip to the United States of America. During this visit, US-Japan cooperation in the military and security areas strengthened. However, the bilateral trade negotiation made no breakthrough. It is quite clear that each country would like to strengthen the tie for its own benefit, which may not be in the interest of regional peace and prosperity.

During the joint press conference, Prime Minister Abe and President Obama made highly complimentary remarks about the US-Japan Alliance, as they had done before. They reaffirmed that the US-Japan Alliance is the foundation for peace and security of the Asian and Pacific region, and that the alliance is “unshakeable”. Both agreed to extend cooperation to the whole world, to meet security challenges more effectively, and to formulate a regional free-trade framework.

What Mr. Abe accomplished most with the trip was to revise, after 18 years, the guidelines for U.S.-Japan defense cooperation. According to the new version, first, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) could exercise collective self-defense even if Japan itself is not directly attacked. Second, the geographic area for US-Japan military cooperation is extended from the surrounding areas of Japan to the whole world. Third, it enables more integrated operations, especially in the areas of missile defense, surveillance and reconnaissance, antisubmarine warfare, counter-proliferation, and more direct logistical support of each other, depending on the situation. Besides that, as part of its rebalancing strategy, the U.S. would deploy more advanced weaponry in Japan.

Of course, both leaders wasted no time sending signals to China. Last year, when President Obama was in Tokyo, he publicly stated that the Diaoyu Islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which was the first time that a U.S. President has made such a statement. This time, the joint statement said, “the United States stands resolute and unwavering in all of its commitments under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, based upon a stable, long-term U.S. military presence in Japan. ” What’s more, both leaders also reached agreement on the so-called shared principles, which include “promotion of globally recognized norms of behavior in shared domains, including the freedom of navigation and overflight, based upon international law”. Obviously, such principles are directed against China’s behavior in the East and South China seas.

Abe’s trip to the U.S. was regarded as a historic success by both countries basically because the long negotiations over revising the guidelines for U.S.-Japan defense cooperation were finally concluded, and progress was promised soon in the bilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. However, a high-profile summit and a banquet in the White House could not hide the differences between the U.S. and Japan in history and trade issues, even under a blanket of military cooperation.

First, with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II coming, the perceptions of history of the two countries do not overlap. Starting from early this year, American officials have been really careful when commenting on the war between the U.S. and Japan. It is not only because the history issue is the most sensitive among Asian countries, and has already caused unease in the region, but that it was the U.S. that first used the A-bomb, against Japan, and caused huge loss of life and property in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the one hand, the U.S. would like to unleash Japan so that Japan could lend a hand when necessary; therefore, it has to ignore some irresponsible rhetoric and behavior by some right-wing Japanese politicians. On the other, the U.S. has to consider the implications of rearming Japan, whether it will benefit or damage the regional order. Actually the emboldening action by the U.S. government has backfired domestically, as many American scholars criticized Abe for his revisionist-history outlook. Twenty-five U.S. congressmen even asked Abe to formally restate Japan’s previous prime minister’s apology for its wartime aggression to the Asian people. However, with the connivance of the Obama administration, Abe simply said, “I will uphold the views expressed by the previous prime ministers in this regard”, and no more than that.

Second, the warm security and military cooperation cannot substitute for a TPP deal. After five years of U.S.-Japan TPP negotiations, they still could not seal a deal, which shows the deep-rooted differences between the two countries. Their divergence on the export of agricultural products and automobile parts, for example, can be traced all the way back to the 1990s. Now for both sides’ benefit, they are eager, and close to striking a deal. For the U.S. side, the TPP is central to the Obama administration’s rebalance strategy, and will shape the political legacy the president leaves behind. For Japan, Abe clearly understood that Obama has some difficulty in obtaining the Trade Promotion Authority from the Congress. Therefore, he has some advantages over Obama and could enjoy a favorable price for the deal. That is probably why they have not been able to make a deal so far.

Third, despite statements that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty covers the Diaoyu Islands issue, which encouraged the Abe administration most, the two countries have different interests. Last year in Tokyo, President Obama stated clearly that “territories under the administration of Japan are covered under the treaty”. However, he also stressed that “it would be a profound mistake to continue to see escalation around this issue rather than dialogue and confidence-building measures between Japan and China”. That means that neither China nor Japan should make provocative actions to escalate the tension. Again in the latest joint statement, the principle of “commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes without coercion” has the same implication: Although the U.S. has the treaty obligations to defend the Diaoyu Islands for Japan, the U.S. still requires Japan to avoid the use of force. Frankly, the U.S. cannot afford to defend the so-called Japanese territory with its soldiers’ lives. The same is true with Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ involvement in any U.S. foreign military operations, as the Japanese parliament will have a say in determining the SDF’s overseas operations.

To sum up, Abe’s visit to the U.S. is by no means as historic as some American officials suggest. The differences underneath clearly show how the strengthened bilateral relations are simply a convenience for both sides. An unleashed Japan will certainly alert regional countries who suffered during World War II. Although an increasingly emboldened Japan’s behavior still needs to be seen to be evaluated, its negative influence upon the regional peace and prosperity seems certain.

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