Implications of President Obama's Visit to Japan: Assuring Commitment to Japan-U.S. Alliance

May 24, 2014

Video: Japanese Only

Ichiro FujisakiIchiro Fujisaki,Former Ambassador of Japan to the United States

Toshihiro NakayamaToshihiro Nakayama,Professor of American Politics and Foreign Policy, Keio University

Tsuneo WatanabeTsuneo Watanabe,Director for Policy Research and Senior Fellow, Tokyo Foundation

Yasushi KudoYasushi Kudo, President of The Genron NPO

U.S. President Barack Obama's April trip to Japan provided significant assurances about his administration's strategic commitments to the Japan-U.S. alliance and engagement with the Asian region. Analysts in Japan generally agree that his three-day state visit, a part of his diplomatic swing through Asia, delivered a powerful message about the continuing close partnership of the two giant Pacific nations, who are both concerned about China's growing expansionist actions in the northeast of the region.

Ichiro Fujisaki, a former ambassador of Japan to the United States and currently a distinguished visiting professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, says: "First, we could reconfirm the American government's unchanging commitment to its alliances in Asia; second, the two governments paved the way for the successful conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement amid tough negotiations." The TPP is a 12-Pacific-nation trade bloc aiming to promote free trade and investment for mutual economic growth and development, and the Japan-U.S. agreement is expected to offer a start line for driving the negotiations of other member nations.

Furthermore, Obama came out in support of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's new policies of "Proactive Pacifism," including the shift toward exercising the right of collective self-defense and also the establishment of the National Security Council, according to Toshihiro Nakayama, a professor of American politics and foreign policy at Keio University, Tokyo.

"Some Asian nations caution that such Abe policies are based on his rightist shift, but Obama denied such a view," says professor Nakayama. "His administration has in effect confirmed that Abe's policies and his own Asia Rebalance Strategy complement each other."

A recent survey by The Genron NPO, a not-for-profit think tank in Tokyo, also indicates nearly 70 percent of the intellectuals and commentators surveyed agreed on the positive accomplishments of Obama's visit. Namely, 25.8 percent of them responded quite positively, when asked if his visit had achieved anything and another 41.1 percent of them said that there were achievements. The survey respondents specified two particular issues as the most important on the agenda: One is the reconfirmation of the significance of the Japan-U.S. alliance, identified by 36.8 percent of the respondents; and the other is clarification of the alliance applicable to the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu in China), the focus of an intense diplomatic issue recently between Japan and China.

The Japanese are indeed pleased -- or relieved -- particularly to hear Obama's clear statement that the U.S. will stand by Japan should military clashes take place around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The uninhabited islands have been under the control of Japan, but the territorial issue emerged as a major diplomatic problem during the past two years, since the Japanese government bought them in 2012 from a private owner and nationalized them to avert a purchase plan by the right-wing camp.

The U.S. president pledged at a joint news conference and again in the joint statement in Tokyo, in short, that America would protect the controversial islands on the basis of the Japan-U.S. Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, if they are threatened. The joint statement issued April 25 includes such phrases as: "U.S. commitments under the security pact extend to all territories under Japan's administration, including the Senkakus." And, also, "the U.S. opposes any unilateral move to undermine Japan's administration of the Senkakus."
He made these points in a clear and straightforward manner, satisfying the Japanese leaders and surprising some observers. The territorial issue is not new and previous U.S. administrations have had the same security policy in the past. Yet, says Fujisaki, "This is the first time that the U.S. president himself has made a direct reference to it and made the U.S. stance so clear."

The Obama administration has reasons for emphasizing its strong commitments to Japan, say some Japanese commentators. For example, Tsuneo Watanabe, director for policy research and senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation, sees that he helped to reduce concerns about new tensions observed between Japan and the U.S. For example, the American Embassy in Tokyo expressed "disappointment" over Prime Minister Abe's visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where the war dead, including Class-A war criminals, are enshrined, despite the anger of neighboring countries. Also, the U.S. had so far avoided upsetting China by making too explicit remarks over the territorial issue. "But, this time he stepped out to clarify his stance on the issue," Watanabe says. Demonstrating the continuity and strength of the Japan-U.S. partnership would also deliver a message to North Korea, he adds. Other analysts also agree it would work as a deterrence for regional stability.

Meanwhile, the other critical issue -- the TPP negotiations -- produced diverse reactions. Marathon talks by top trade officials continued every day and night throughout the Obama visit, and expectations grew for a dramatic breakthrough at the end of the negotiation process. When they did not reach any conclusive accord, American media reported failures in reaching an agreement, undermining Obama's diplomatic efforts.

The two governments announced they had found "common ground" for hammering out the trade deal, a "key milestone" in the negotiation process. But, there remains a wide gap that must be narrowed to find mutually acceptable solutions particularly regarding access to the agriculture market in Japan and the car markets of the two nations.

The Japanese yet seem to appreciate the progress more positively.

"We saw the two governments share a resolute intention to work for the TPP agreement," said Yasushi Kudo, president of The Genron NPO. In the Genron NPO's survey, nearly 70 percent of the surveyed respondents were convinced the path had been paved for the bilateral trade agreement. And, 23.9 percent predicted that the agreement would be reached after the U.S. midterm elections in November while only 16 percent said it would be wrapped up in the near future after the 12-nation ministerial conference in May.

Political scientist Nakayama of Keio University views the TPP negotiations not simply as a matter of building an economic framework but also as a stage for demonstrating a joint initiative for global improvement. "It carries greater political implications because Japan and the U.S. are collaborating to create such progressive trade rules," he says.

According to the Tokyo Foundation's Watanabe, the TPP talks are more challenging than other tough negotiations because it is not just a bilateral trade deal, multiple other countries are to join the negotiations. Also President Obama will be required to win Trade Promotion Authority -- the so-called fast-track negotiating authority -- from Congress to negotiate international agreements. "With all these challenges, the two governments have come this far and provided momentum in the process," he says. "We are assured that the talks will continue."

Excerpts of other remarks on American diplomacy and Japan-U.S. relations:

I find one part of the joint statement worthy of note. The part says: "To achieve our shared objectives of promoting peace and economic prosperity in the Asia-Pacific, and around the globe, the U.S. and Japan are strengthening trilateral cooperation with like-minded partners, including the Republic of Korea, Australia and India." Such an expression about collaboration with other countries is unprecedented in this kind of joint statement, I think.

The president also is sending out a clear message to China, even though tensions may develop in relations with Beijing. It is in America's interests and also in the interests of promoting regional stability. The Obama administration acts very rationally -- rather than ideologically -- and always seems able to design policies that work out better than initially thought, as we see in his administration's policies in Syria and Afghanistan.

The Japan-U.S. joint statement is pretty ambitious in a way, as it indicates the further potential of the Japan-U.S. alliance in a global perspective. It covers issues outside the Asian region, such as the Ukraine situation and Iran's nuclear development, and also mentions the Global Commons and bilateral cooperation in Southeast Asia.

Some people may be concerned that President Obama's remarks were too provocative in view of China, but I do not think so. The joint statement and America's China policy are not contradictory. America has consistently aimed to build good relations with China; it is not looking for confrontation. But should China act in a dominating manner or attempt to change the status quo by force, the U.S. would properly act against such moves. The joint statement sends out such a dual message to Beijing.

Ten years ago Japan was left out, forgotten, but today Japan stands in a relatively better position. In some surveys in the U.S., more people view the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty as not that important. But on the other hand, some legislators formed the Japan Caucus to promote bilateral relations.

We still have a lot of homework to do on the Japan-U.S. relationship. The transfer of U.S forces from Futenma Air Base to Camp Schwab in Okinawa is one and the collective self-defense issue is another. Unless we successfully do the homework, our relationship will be weaker. We need to redefine what we will do about such issues.

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