Who Has Abe’s Back?

Obama leaves doubts whether he fully supports Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Washington last Friday bore fruit in several ways. In public, both sides emphasized the strength of the alliance and the importance of Japan shouldering more responsibility for global peace and prosperity. In private, Mr. Abe discussed with President Barack Obama Japan’s plans to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations. Perhaps most encouraging was the Prime Minister’s optimistic message: I am back and so is Japan.

Mr. Abe has enjoyed considerable success in the first two months of his return to power. With the stock market on a tear and his popularity rating above 70%, he has momentum needed to overcome domestic vested interests and commit to trade liberalization. But he also needs the Obama Administration’s support to ensure American interests don’t block Japan’s entry into TPP. That support is still in question, in part because U.S. automakers and unions don’t want to see lower tariffs on Japanese trucks.

The Prime Minister was also focused on shoring up Japan’s security, which depends on the U.S. alliance. In public he only obliquely referred to the long-running conflict over a deal to relocate U.S. bases on Okinawa, but he left little doubt that his government will work to clean up the mess left by the Democratic Party of Japan’s attempt to renegotiate the plan.

China’s challenge over the Senkaku Islands drew the most pointed comments of his visit. In an interview with the Washington Post published as the visit began, and again in a speech to a foreign policy think tank, Mr. Abe stressed that he would not allow Beijing to change the status quo in the East China Sea by force or intimidation. At the same time, the Prime Minister made clear that he is not spoiling for a fight with China. He offered an open hand of cooperation and compromise to Beijing, and he steered clear of controversies over Japan’s wartime history.

Bloomberg NewsShinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, left, shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Feb. 22, 2013.


One disappointment was the tepid U.S. public statements on the Senkakus. According to Japanese media reports, Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated in private to Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida the U.S. treaty commitment to help Japan defend the Senkakus if they come under attack. Mr. Obama failed to mention the islands in his joint public appearance with Mr. Abe, perhaps for fear of offending China.

Yet if the Japanese experience with the Senkakus teaches anything, it’s that Beijing likes to ratchet up tension until it receives a strong response. Reticence can be dangerous. As Mr. Abe told the Post, the Chinese Communist Party has a deeply ingrained need to maintain its historical grievances with Japan because its hold on power depends in part on fanning the flames of nationalism.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman promptly complained that Mr. Abe’s comments “defamed China.” But Beijing’s behavior says otherwise. Chinese government vessels make almost daily incursions into Japanese waters and maneuver aggressively, in one case turning weapons radar on a Japanese ship. Such actions are a clear threat of force, and they risk an accidental confrontation like the collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3 and a Chinese fighter in 2001.

In two months in office, Mr. Abe has already shored up relations with other Asian countries threatened by China. But such ties are no substitute for the engagement of a U.S. President. Let’s hope the Obama Administration will remove any doubts about U.S. support for Mr. Abe before the tyranny of events takes over.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page 11

A version of this article appeared February 25, 2013, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Who Has Abe’s Back?.

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