Asia-Pacific watchers agree – there’s a lot riding on this week’s U.S. visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Abe will be in the social spotlight during an April 28 state dinner at the White House hosted in his honor by President Obama. Then the political spotlight will shine even brighter April 29, when Abe is scheduled address a joint session of Congress.
With the U.S. military rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, China’s continued rise and a new Japanese-U.S. defense relationship being crafted, Abe’s visit could not come at a more opportune – or inopportune – time, depending on the reviews.
“It’s an important moment, a critical moment,” says Sheila Smith, the senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Especially important is how Abe addresses Japan’s past as the region gets set to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Smith said April 22 at a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) event to discuss her recently published book, “Intimate Rivals, Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China.”
Abe, she says, also has to answer the question: “Who is Japan today?”
Others also are watching Abe’s visit. The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) writes: “Since the escalation of tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea in 2010, and as China’s military power continues to rapidly expand, Japan has been driven to dramatically re-examine its defense posture. In May 2014, a panel advising the Abe administration recommended that the country reinterpret Article 9 of its constitution to allow for collective self-defense—part of a broader strategy to enable Japan to play a larger role as an ally of the United States and as a key guarantor of regional stability.”
Prime Minister Abe has expanded Japan’s defense relationships with other countries in the region, including Vietnam, the Philippines, and India, NBR notes. “Such cooperation with Southeast Asian countries looking to maintain sovereignty and modernize their forces, particularly their coast guards, will be crucial in strengthening regional security.”
And, NBR says, “Japan has experienced considerable anxiety over the past few years as to whether the United States will defend it if a conflict were to rapidly escalate in the East China Sea. China now regularly patrols the disputed Senkakus and is allegedly building runways capable of hosting military jets on the islands. While it is unclear if China has the capacity yet to completely control the territory, it certainly can intimidate and coerce. It is increasingly conceivable that Japan could experience an attack or other incident necessitating a military response. Contemporary Japan has little experience with threat response or deterrence strategy, though it is still the largest maritime power in Asia.”
In April 2015, NBR says, U.S. secretary of defense Ashton Carter traveled to Tokyo to finalize the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines ahead of Abe’s visit to the United States. “These guidelines will modernize bilateral cooperation on surveillance, missile defense, cyber and space issues, and self-defense. Carter stressed that the guidelines, which had not been updated since 1997, will allow the U.S. military and Japan Self-Defense Forces to cooperate more ‘seamlessly’ around the world. The guidelines are a major centerpiece of the U.S.-Japan alliance and will help soothe Japanese qualms about China’s power in the region. But Japan’s changing security story is larger than these guidelines, and much of it is being driven domestically in response to heightened maritime tensions.”
As history has shown in that part of the world, anything can happen. People will be paying careful attention to Abe to see how he thinks – or hopes – this will all play out.