US, Japan and a message of hope

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a 45-minute address, entitled "Toward an Alliance of Hope", to a joint meeting of US Congress three weeks ago on April 29.

It was historic because no other Japanese prime minister had addressed a joint session of the US Congress before, while five German presidents and chancellors, six Italian presidents and prime ministers and six South Korean presidents had done so since 1945 and the end of World War II (WWII).

It was also historic because that was where former US president Franklin Roosevelt stood back in 1941 when he requested a declaration of war against Japan, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbour.

Seventy-four years later, Mr Abe was standing there to convince Americans that Japan is the US' most important partner in Asia and will remain so in the years and decades to come.

In his somewhat over-choreographed and emphatic presentation, Mr Abe talked about his life in California and New York, Japan's war and partnership with the US, the need for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, and deepening security co-operation between the two countries.

Love and war

Mr Abe started out by talking about his love of America. He remembered an Italian-American woman, friendly and a good cook, who hosted him when he was a student at the University of Southern California in the late 1970s.

He also recollected how American meritocracy mesmerised him when he worked as a businessman in New York.

Having characterised himself as a friend of America, Mr Abe took on the sensitive history issue in order to clear the suspicion that he was a historical revisionist. He said history was "harsh", and expressed deep repentance and remorse.

He offered condolences to the American soldiers lost in WWII and remembered how Japan brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries.

Mr Abe mentioned TPP four times in his address and argued that this high-quality regional free trade agreement would bring about tremendous economic and security benefits to its participants.

The TPP was arguably the most immediate and important item on his political agenda, as far as his speech to Congress was concerned. Because unless Congress grants US President Barack Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), he will not be able to negotiate the TPP without worrying about line-item amendments that individual or groups of Congress members might demand later.

Mr Abe played his best card at the end when he discussed Japan's more robust commitment to international security and strengthened security ties between Japan and the United States.

The Japan-US defence co-operation guidelines were upgraded and signed just two days before his address, defining how the two countries' armed forces would work closely together both in peace and war to deal with an increasingly assertive China.

Mr Abe's visit to the US lasted seven days and took him from the East Coast to the West Coast.

He seems to have succeeded in achieving his goal of convincing America's leaders that Japan remains the superpower's most important partner in Asia, based not just on shared interests but also on shared values that both consider fundamental.

This point was best demonstrated when Mr Obama personally escorted Mr Abe to the Lincoln Memorial, the embodiment of American values.

China's comeback

Mr Abe did a good job, but there are challenges ahead. His statements on history were received favourably by many but not all. Some critics pointed to the fact that he did not use stronger words such as "colonial rule and aggression" and "heartfelt apology".

Observers are divided on how to interpret this. Some think he is a revisionist after all and will never use those words.

Others believe he is saving them for Aug 15, the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, in order to maximise the political effect of using those words.

Yet others say there is a third way in which he will use creative language to satisfy people on the left and right, and at home and abroad. Just who is right will be known in August.

Mr Obama is making a last-ditch effort to convince the Congress to give him TPA, that is, fast-track authority to negotiate free trade.

Fortunately, leaders of the US Senate reached an agreement on May 13 to consider and likely approve TPA. But it is unclear whether the US House of Representatives will let it happen.

Mr Abe can help Mr Obama by making further concessions on agriculture and automobiles, but that would increase economic and political risks at home.

Moreover, Japan and the US are in a Catch-22 situation: While Japanese negotiators want TPA before showing all hands, the US Congress wants more concessions before TPA.

Successful conclusion of TPP has become truly imperative for Japan and the US since China successfully solicited participation of 56 countries in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

It remains to be seen how Japan might be able to help Mr Obama in his endeavour.

As for security arrangements in the Asia-Pacific, Mr Abe spoke about a proactive Japan. However, while 47 per cent of US citizens want Japan to play a more active military role, only 23 per cent of Japanese agree, according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre in January and February.

If Japan fails to follow up on Mr Abe's somewhat bloated promise, expectations will quickly turn into dismay.

As for China, it will fight back.

President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit the United States in September.

In his congressional address, Mr Abe used the term "democracy" six times, "freedom" five times, and "rule of law" three times, apparently in an attempt to distinguish Japan from China. Mr Xi will surely have a counter.

Alliance of trust

In addition to Washington DC, Mr Abe visited Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles in order to expand Japan's footprint.

In Boston, he met students at Harvard and innovators at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He pledged US$15 million (S$20 million) to support Japan studies in the United States. In California, he met entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley to discuss innovation and investment.

He also invited Governor Jerry Brown to try a Shinkansen bullet train simulator to convince him that it would be the best fit for the state's US$68 billion rail project to connect San Francisco with Los Angeles.

In addition to the effort made at the summit level, mutual trust at the grassroots level has become one of the most important foundations of the Japan-US partnership.

In the Pew Research Centre poll mentioned earlier, 75 per cent of Japanese citizens said they could trust the United States and 68 per cent of US citizens said they could trust Japan, while only 7 per cent of Japanese citizens and 30 per cent of US citizens said they could trust China.

Although it is too early to judge whether the Japan-US partnership can develop into an alliance of hope, it has definitely become - some 70 years after the war - an alliance of trust.

The writer is a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

This article was first published on May 20, 2015.
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