Obama’s Visit To Japan: Changing Perceptions Is Key To Success

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President Barack Obama will visit Tokyo as the first stop of his Asia trip later this week. In his brief, two-day visit, he will meet with Prime Minister Abe to engage in a wide-ranging discussion, including regional security concerns and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Already, there is a growing pessimism that the summit may not yield much substance. Media reports suggest a tough US-Japan negotiation on TPP. Although they emphasize that much progress has been made to bridge the gap, they also hint that it is questionable whether enough progress can be made for the two leaders to declare victory when they meet in Tokyo in a few days.

On political-military issues, as well, not much progress has been made on the alliance management agenda that was agreed upon in October 2013 when US Secretaries John Kerry and Chuck Hagel met their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo.

Still, the upcoming summit between Obama and Abe can play a critical role in jump-starting the process of confidence building between the two leaders, thereby resetting the tone of US-Japan relations at the top level.

The atmosphere surrounding US-Japan relations has undergone turbulence since Abe returned to office in December 2012. Since Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine-a politically controversial Shinto shrine that enshrines the spirit of Japan’s war victims, including Class-A War Criminal- there seems to be an increasing disconnect between Tokyo and Washington.

Many in the US were frustrated by Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine because it only handicapped US efforts to build a broad coalition in the Asia-Pacific region against China’s increasingly assertive behavior. It also detracted from Washington’s diplomatic efforts over the past year to refocus South Korea’s strategic attention on Seoul’s No. 1 security concern, North Korea, according to US officials.

Abe’s Yasukuni visit, which took place despite the concerns that had been expressed by US officials and Abe’s closest advisors, has made some in Washington wonder whether Abe indeed intends to challenge the postwar international system that has been built upon the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which allowed Japan to return to the international community following its defeat in World War II, and enable Japan to enter an alliance relationship with the United States.

Even among those who are sympathetic to Abe’s desire to pay respect to the Japanese who lost their lives during World War II and were enshrined in Yasukuni, there was an elevated level of frustration over his apparent lack of appreciation of the diplomatic repercussions of his actions.

On the other side of the Pacific, frustration with the Obama administration spiked in Tokyo following the US embassy in Tokyo issuing a statement to express “disappointment” with Abe’s Yasukuni visit. In short, the statement was interpreted as an indication that the Obama administration does not even try to understand that Abe visited Yasukuni to renew Japan’s commitment to continue to uphold its postwar principle of being a peace-loving nation.

Some even blamed the US for being influenced too much by the Chinese and Korean active public diplomacy campaign in the US. Others began to attribute US reaction to the Obama administration being Democratic, implying that the Republican administration might have demonstrated more “understanding” and could have been sympathetic toward Japanese views.

Combined with the uncertainty over what the potential implication of Crimea annexation by Russia may be, there has been a great deal of anxiety over Washington’s intention and capacity to continue to maintain its defense commitment to Japan.

The upcoming summit offers an excellent opportunity for Obama and Abe to begin to bridge the gap that is widening between the two countries. In the summit meeting, Abe should personally reaffirm his commitment to his vision for a Japan that has a robust economy. He should also use this opportunity to articulate his determination to defend Japan’s sovereignty, but in a pragmatic and non-provocative manner.

Obama, for his part, should unambiguously communicate to Abe that he not only values Japan as a critical partner, but also appreciates Abe’s initiatives and leadership to revitalize the Japanese economy, implement difficult structural reform, and take concrete measures to enable Japan to deepen its defense ties with the US.

Most importantly, the two leaders should take this opportunity to explore each other’s vision for the future international order, and their ideas on how the US and Japan should play a role in shaping it. What is certain to be a snapshot of the two leaders standing side-by-side and articulating their shared vision will be a good place to start creating such a narrative.


Photo credit: Yoshikazu TAKADA via flickr


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