Abe's remarks on wartime past 'hit the right notes'

Abe's remarks on wartime past 'hit the right notes'
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe largely hit the right notes in his historic speech to the United States Congress, say Washington pundits, although his visit also highlights how much work remains to be done before Japan can fully embrace a more global role.

Of particular interest was the way Mr Abe handled the delicate issue of Japan's wartime past.

Dr Patrick Cronin of the Centre for a New American Security hailed Mr Abe's remarks on history as "constructive, thoughtful and sincere".

While the Japanese leader stopped short of making a full apology, he did raise some eyebrows by expressing "deep repentance" for Japan's actions during World War II.

Dr Michael Green, Japan Chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), noted that this was the first time such language had been used by a Japanese leader. On two recent occasions, Mr Abe had chosen to express "deep remorse".

Said Dr Green: "Repentance, in the Christian tradition, is loaded with a lot of meaning, more than remorse, which is a more passive way of expressing views on wrongdoing in the past.

"This is about as much as the (President Barack) Obama administration expected."

Few in Washington had anticipated a formal apology from Mr Abe. He is said to be of the view that Japan has apologised enough and he believes those lobbying for further apologies are trying to constrain the country politically.

The World War II issue is critical to the White House primarily because of how it impacts Japan's ties with China and, more importantly, South Korea.

The US sees its triangular security alliance with South Korea and Japan as crucial to countering China and tackling threats from North Korea.

Indications are that Mr Abe did not go far enough for ethnic Koreans in the US. While most lawmakers welcomed his remarks, Representative Mike Honda, who hails from a district in California with a significant Korean-American population, released a statement criticising the Japanese leader.

He said it was "shocking and shameful" that Mr Abe did not apologise over the comfort women issue.

There was also unfinished business on the matter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal that would open up trade among 12 Pacific Rim countries.

While no one had expected a successful conclusion to be announced during the trip, there had been hope that Mr Obama and Mr Abe might at least announce that the bilateral talks on market access were complete.

Said Mr Matthew Goodman, a senior adviser for Asian economics at the CSIS: "That didn't happen and that's disappointing to some, but it is clear from the body language of the two leaders that they got very close. Importantly, they highlighted that the two countries are now going to work on the other 10 members of the group to try and get the overall deal across the line."

On the whole, analysts agreed that Mr Abe's visit was a success, especially in the way it shored up the US-Japan alliance. There had been suggestions in recent years that China wanted a weak US-Japan alliance.

Dr Green said: "There were some expectations in Beijing that they could manipulate the alliance to weaken the mutual trust. "I don't think Beijing thinks that any more. I think this summit and the defence guidelines and TPP show how the US-Japan alliance is really central to our approach to Asia. And that is really important strategically."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 1, 2015.
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