Abe-san Comes to Washington: 5 Things to Watch

April 28, 2015

Triumphant Modi, divisive Netanyahu, and, most recently, soothing Ghani. Washington has seen an unprecedented flurry of highly anticipated and consequential state visits with more just around the corner. Upcoming visits from East Asia, a region that will determine the future of American global power, will give a boost to the administration’s four-year “rebalance” to the Pacific. As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe comes to Washington this week to make his unprecedented address to a joint Congress, his mission will be to realign Japan and the United States in such a way that outlasts the current administration. As the region’s first state visit, which will be followed in close succession by Chinese President Xi Junping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, how Abe is received and what he says will be closely watched.

For Japanese and U.S. national security watchers alike, here are five points to pay close attention to as Abe seeks to reposition Japan for the world stage:

1. Marking Milestones: 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, including the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Prime Minister Abe will certainly reference this significant milestone, but how he balances Japan’s role as an aggressor versus a victim will be telling. He is most likely to frame the conversation around Japan’s 70 year history after 1945, emphasizing contributions to global peace and prosperity as a model member of the international community, while critics such as China and South Korea will seek to remind him of Japan’s pre-1945 history of brutality during their occupation as Japanese colonies. Reassuring his critics that Japan’s nature is peaceful and that its aggressive imperialism in the 1930s and early 1940s was a historical anomaly will be key. Regardless, commemorating rather than glorifying or whitewashing the Great Pacific War and the tragedies leading up to it will be important for not only Japan but its region and the entire world. Particularly given China’s own planned celebrations and military parades marking Japan’s defeat, approaching these milestones with humility and sincerity will set the right tone for the rest of this difficult year for Japan.

2. Japan as a World Leader: Japan’s contributions to peacekeeping and international aid will likely be a major focus of the trip. Educating Americans and the world about Japan’s role as one of the world’s largest contributors of development assistance from Southeast Asia to Latin America will be noteworthy. In addition, focusing on Japan’s traditional funding infrastructure projects in politically fraught regions such as in the Middle East is an important area for future cooperation and engagement. Japanese have traditionally under-promised and over-delivered in their international relations without much fanfare.

3. Japan as America’s Partner: Tokyo hopes to reclaim its role as a global player by selling Japan as America’s go-to partner in Asia. Japan has benefited tremendously from the U.S.-led international rules-based order established after World War II and now seeks to stand up to the threats — such as Russia’s use of military force in Ukraine, cybersecurity attacks by North Korea, and China’s aggressive posture regionally — that are challenging this order. It is strengthening its connectivity with other countries — especially other democracies that have the most to lose. Japan is seizing the opportunity to be not only a contributor to regional peace and stability, but an active player on the global stage. Redefined collective self-defense efforts and the newly established national security council (pdf) make Tokyo an even more attractive partner to Washington, even as constitutional revisions and longer-term discussions of Japan’s role remain controversial both at home and throughout the region. Even with constraints, however, enhanced cooperation with Australia, India, and ASEAN more broadly reinforce the possibilities for further cooperation between Washington and Tokyo.

4. Japan and the Economy: The Japanese people will be watching this trip carefully through a domestic political lens. Japan’s ability to play a global role rests uneasily on an at-home constituency depressed by decades of economic stagnation. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the proposed U.S.-led free trade zone linking East Asia to the Pacific Western Hemisphere, is going to be a key topic of negotiation between Prime Minister Abe and President Obama. The results will be carefully parsed by Japan Inc. As these global companies look beyond their home islands, being able to power Japanese economic growth through greater market entry and preferential treatment in the American marketplace will be a main proof point domestically for the prime minister’s initiatives. Prime Minister Abe needs to come home with a firm deal and if the White House does not handle the American side of the TPP debate correctly and carefully, backlash against the agreement could spoil the visit.

5. America’s Embrace and Obama’s Reciprocation: The extent to which President Obama will embrace Prime Minister Abe and his overtures will determine the ultimate success of his visit. From the type of physical embrace exchanged to the facial expressions and activities shared, all will be micro-analyzed. While announcements in cultural, educational, military, political and technological joint cooperation are expected not only in Washington, but also in Boston and California, where Abe will be stopping, the scope and tone of these ventures will chart the future direction for both nations. Secretary Kerry personally hosting Abe in Boston during his first stop of the visit has already generated positive feedback; now as he arrives in Washington can Obama be equally as relatable?

In the end, it is the actions Japan takes in the follow up to Abe’s visit that will matter more to the United States and its future in the Pacific than the visit itself. However, the pageantry of the trip, the rhetoric Abe deploys, and the force with which he describes Japan’s shifting role in international affairs will nonetheless send a significant message to the Japanese back home, to the U.S. Congress, and to the American people. Abe is hoping to seize the present moment — including ongoing global crises — to expand the scope of cooperation between Japan and the United States.

Joshua W. Walker is the Transatlantic Fellow Japan Lead for the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Asia Program and a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and previously served as a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Department of State.  He is a contributor to War on the Rocks and the views expressed are his own.