Japan-US alliance being rebuilt to meet China's rise

Japan-US alliance being rebuilt to meet China's rise
US President Barack Obama (R) and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L)

This is the second instalment in a series looking at the backgrounds and aims of Japan and the United States as they seek to expand their co-operation in establishing a new international order after their recent summit.

"Let us call the US-Japan alliance 'an alliance of hope,'" Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said as he wrapped up his address to a joint meeting of the US Congress on Wednesday. "Together we can make a difference."

This was a reminder from the prime minister that if Japan and the United States work together, they can build a better future.

The expression "alliance of hope" was the brainchild of Abe himself. This was a deliberate message, according to a source accompanying Abe on his trip to the United States.

"In recent years, Japan's presence has waned in the United States," the source said. "The prime minister infused into his speech his desire to make the US public think, 'Maybe the United States should be working more with Japan, rather than with Europe.'"

After Japan's economic bubble burst and its economy fell into the doldrums in the mid-1990s, US interest in Japan declined.

The Democratic Party of Japan administration that came to power in 2009 was ham-fisted in its handling of the planned relocation of the US Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture, which chilled bilateral ties with the United States.

This changed with the emergence of the second Abe Cabinet in the House of Representatives election at the end of 2012.

The two flags flying highest on the Abe mast were his Abenomics economic policy package and restoring Japan's diplomatic and national security policies.

In the early days of the administration of US President Barack Obama, Washington's position was to place great emphasis on dialogue with China, which had gained more political and economic influence.

However, as China's repeated provocations in the East China Sea and the South China Sea made it evident it was attempting to change the status quo in the region through force, the United States initiated a "rebalance" of its military, economic and diplomatic focus to the Asia-Pacific region and strengthened efforts to keep China in check.

Last week, the Japanese and US governments agreed on new guidelines for bilateral defence co-operation - one of the crowning achievements of Abe's visit.

These guidelines, along with the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal that is in the final stages of negotiations, were made against the backdrop of China's rise.

This arrival of a new challenger to the scene has helped push forward a rebuilding of the Japan-US alliance.

When Obama visited Japan as a state guest in April 2014, he became the first US president to explicitly say that the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture fall within the scope of Article 5 of the bilateral security treaty, which obliges the two nations to act against an attack on "territories under the administration of Japan."

"Next, it will be my turn to visit Washington," Abe said soon after Obama's visit. "I want to show the American public how important Japan is."

Abe strongly desired to make this trip to the United States, and he had been hoping to become the first Japanese prime minister to make an address to a joint meeting of Congress.

Later Wednesday, Abe gave a speech at an event hosted by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, where he explained the intention behind his address to Congress.

"It boils down to the fact that a strong Japan is in the best interests of the United States, and a strong Japan-US alliance is in the best interests of the region and the world," Abe said.

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