By Reiji Yoshida
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embarks on a seven-day tour of the United States this week, the highlight of which is a summit with President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday.
The meeting has taken on added importance for the two leaders as their countries engage in a power game to keep a rising China in check, according to Fumiaki Kubo, professor at the University of Tokyo and a noted expert on contemporary American politics.
Japan and the United States are now the only major countries that have yet to express readiness to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which China is setting up to expand its economic clout in the Asia-Pacific region.
On the other hand, Japan and the United States have entered the final stretch on striking a bilateral accord on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks.
If successful, the TPP would create a massive Pacific Rim free trade zone and a new economic order that excludes China. Tokyo and Washington, through the initiative, are thus going head to head with China and its proposed regional development bank, Kubo said.
“In that sense, the summit meeting is more important than ever, both for Japan and the United States,” he said.
During their meeting, Abe and Obama are expected to endorse and praise bilateral progress being made over the TPP, and will try to gain political momentum to reduce domestic resistance to the TPP in both Japan and the U.S.
Another key item on the agenda is bolstering the Japan-U.S. military alliance, with China again looming in the background.
On Monday, a “two-plus-two” meeting of the Japanese and American foreign and defense ministers will be held in New York, where they will revise defense guidelines for the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military for the first time in 18 years.
One of the key scenarios likely to be covered by the new guidelines is the joint defense of remote Japanese islands, including the Senkakus in the East China Sea, seen as a potential military flash point between Japan, which controls the chain, and China, which claims it.
The revised guidelines will not mention the Senkaku Islands by name, and American leaders may remain reluctant to fully commit the United States in the event that a military clash takes place in the East China Sea between China and Japan.
For their part, Japanese officials seem ready to tout the revised guidelines as a symbol of enhanced military ties, including U.S. commitment to defend Japanese territory including the Senkaku Islands, which both China and Taiwan claim sovereignty over.
In addition to Washington, Abe plans to visit Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles during his visit, in a bid to win over political leaders and ordinary citizens to bolster Japan’s ties with the U.S.One potential obstacle, however, is Abe’s reputation as a historical revisionist who often tries to play down Japan’s responsibility for its wartime past, an issue keeping ties on edge with China and South Korea.
Abe, apparently realizing this could seriously damage Japan’s ties with the U.S., its key security ally, plans to attend a number of events to leave a positive impression on the American people. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, thereby becoming the first Japanese leader to do so.
In that speech, Abe is expected to express some sense of “remorse” over Japan’s actions in World War II, as he did when delivering a speech in Indonesia on Wednesday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Asian-African Conference.
According to media reports, Abe has also invited Lester Tenney, a 94-year-old survivor of the 1942 Bataan Death March in the Philippines, to a dinner he will host in Washington on Wednesday. By inviting Tenney, Abe apparently wants to present an image to the American public that he is squarely facing up to Japan’s wartime legacy.
But whether Abe can impress China and South Korea, who are most sensitive to his wartime stance given their past suffering at Japan’s hands, is another matter. What Abe will discuss, or omit, regarding Japan’s invasion of China and brutal annexation of the Korean Peninsula in his address to Congress will be another major focus point during his U.S. tour.