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What Japan's hawkish Prime Minister Abe wants from Obama

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in Washington today to discuss regional security and economic issues with President Obama. His overriding concern is confirmation of the strength of US-Japan ties.

By Staff Writer / February 22, 2013

The flags of the United States and Japan are flown atop the plane carrying Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as it arrives at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Thursday. Mr. Abe is meeting with President Obama today.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Tokyo

As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepares for his summit today with President Obama in Washington, he has one overriding goal: to remind his fellow citizens, and Japan’s neighbors in Asia, just how strong Tokyo’s alliance with the United States is.

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These are tense times for Japan’s new leaders, with North Korea testing long-range missiles and nuclear devices and Chinese warships prowling the waters around disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Mr. Abe wants to show that “he is investing effort in rejuvenating the alliance,” says one Western diplomat here. “The main message is that US-Japan relations are strong and that Japan has a solid base from which to work as it addresses other regional issues.”

“This is a good chance for Abe to confirm with President Obama’s new team the importance of the alliance,” adds a senior Japanese official. “Abe’s top priority is to restore relations with the US.”

The Japanese leader, elected in December, will also be keen to reassure Washington that he will not behave like the rabid right-wing nationalist that many critics have painted him.

Abe campaigned successfully for the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and then in parliamentary elections, on a clearly right-wing platform. He stressed the need to beef up Japan’s Self Defense Forces, his desire to revise the Constitution so as to give the military more freedom of action, and the importance he attached to a firm defense of the Senkaku islands, known as the Diaoyu in China, which claims them.

But since taking office, Abe “has been very careful not to play up the rightist agenda,” says Masaru Kohno, a professor of politics at Waseda University in Tokyo. “He is not showing off his right-wing muscles and the public is very positive about that.”

For example, Abe backed off a campaign pledge to make a national celebration Friday out of “Takeshima Day,” marking Japan’s claim to another disputed island, which South Korea calls Dokdo. Such a celebration would have angered Seoul.

The prime minister has also shown no signs of making any visit to Yasukuni, the controversial shrine to Japanese war dead, including executed war criminals. A visit would undoubtedly infuriate neighboring countries that suffered atrocities under Japanese occupation. Before his election, Abe had expressed regret at not having visited the shrine during his last term of office, from 2006 until 2007.

The Japanese government has also reacted with great caution to Chinese intrusions into waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu, which Japan administers.

What Abe wants

Abe will be hoping for a statement from Mr. Obama that would add presidential luster to pledges by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that Washington would come to Japan’s aid militarily in the event of an attack on the disputed islands.

That might help dampen the flickers of doubt some here harbor about the strength of Washington’s commitment to Japan’s security. “A lot of conservatives fear that China may be more important to US national interests in the long run than Japan,” explains Hiroshi Meguro, a foreign affairs analyst at Hosei University in Tokyo.

In order to allay such fears, Japanese officials have begun talks with their US counterparts to revise the 1997 guidelines that set out in detail how US and Japanese forces would react to contingencies in the region.

The current guidelines are focused on emergencies in the Korean peninsula. “We need to expand the focus to include incidents in the southwestern area” of Japanese territory, where the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands lie, says Akihisa Nagashima, a former vice minister of defense.

Washington + China?

Washington, however, anxious to avoid giving the impression that it is engaged in anti-Chinese joint war planning with Tokyo, is seeking to focus attention on new thematic areas for the guidelines, such as space and cyber warfare, rather than on geographic areas.

At the same time, when he meets Abe, Obama is expected to reiterate the importance of Washington’s alliance with Tokyo.

The sense among some Japanese analysts that “the US relationship with China is more important than the security alliance that has been the bedrock of how the US has dealt with Asia for years is misplaced,” says the Western diplomat. “Washington will not throw that out of the window just because it wants a better relationship with China.”

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