Obama visit fails to strengthen US–Japan trust

Author: Kazuhiko Togo, Kyoto Sangyo University

President Obama’s visit to Japan from April 23-25 was important for US-Japan alliance relations.

But did the visit genuinely strengthen trust between Japan and the United States? A number of outstanding problems indicates that there is room for a great deal of improvement.

The US–Japan Joint Statement on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, while not a new policy revelation, was powerful and clear. Obama affirmed that ‘these [US] commitments extend to all the territories under the administration of Japan, including the Senkaku Islands … the United States opposes any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands’. Together with the new treaty which Obama concluded with the Philippines, this statement sent a message to the world that the greatest risk to East Asia’s security is China’s possible readiness to resolve conflict through force rather than dialogue and negotiation. In this context, Obama also supported Abe’s decision to establish a National Security Council and his endeavour to exercise the right to collective self-defence.

But there are still doubts about how Japan and Abe responded to other issues.

Media reports prior to and during the visit recognised that it was vital for President Obama to make substantial progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Despite the powerful language included in the Joint Statement — ‘we have identified a path forward on important bilateral TPP issues’ and ‘this marks a key milestone in the TPP negotiations’ — progress remains abstract. Prime Minister Abe faces difficult domestic constituencies and it seems his decision to not make concessions was informed by a desire to avoid political upheaval, leaving him with heavy home work in the near future.

Abe’s statement at the end of the joint press conference on his Yasukuni visit was a surprise and shock for many observers. Abe’s statement was fundamentally a repetition of the statement he made on 26 December 2013 when he visited Yasukuni. In that sense, it was a reaffirmation of the righteousness of his Yasukuni policy. But it was evident that his Yasukuni visit caused a real stir in the alliance, as well as having exalted Chinese hardliners. Many observed the displeasure on Obama’s face during this moment. This begs the question, what possible strategic calculus could Abe have had to antagonise Obama at the very moment the President has made the most forthcoming statement on Senkaku/Diaoyu and defence?

Another issue of critical importance for Japan and the US is Russia and Ukraine. On the one hand, Abe cannot deviate from his position as a G7 partner. Failing to support Ukrainian territorial integrity through the G7 would set a negative precedent for international law. But Abe is aiming to understand in a more holistic way the complexity of historical development in Ukraine, Russia and Crimea. He also recognises the danger of pushing Russia toward China. ‘Voice of Russia’, which is said to reflect the Kremlin’s view, has signalled Russia’s growing interest in a partnership with Iran. This runs the risk of creating a Beijing–Moscow–Tehran alliance, which would be a strategic nightmare for the West. Precisely because within the G7 Japan might be the most ‘dialogue prone’ country toward Russia, Abe must gain Obama’s confidence that Japan is not just narrowly thinking of resolving the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands dispute with Russia and will live up to its G7 responsibilities.

Also, how should Japan and the US understand the statement made by Obama on 25 April in South Korea on comfort women: ‘this was a terrible, egregious violation of human rights. Those women were violated in ways that, even in the midst of war, was shocking … there should be an accurate and clear account of what happened’. Undoubtedly one of the most important political objectives for President Obama on his Asian trip was to better relations between Japan and South Korea.

There is every reason to assume that the US is putting strong pressure on Japan to improve ties with South Korea. Akitaka Saiki, Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, visited Seoul and upon his return to Tokyo on 14 March Abe stated that his ‘heart is aching for the fate of those women who had to go through indescribable pain … my cabinet does not consider revising the Kono Statement’. Subsequently, the US-Japan-ROK trilateral summit was convened on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague and Japan–ROK bilateral talks at the official level were held.

Abe and Park should prioritise finding a solution as soon as possible while 50 or so comfort women are still alive. The dialogue should be based on mutual efforts, and the 1993 Kono Statement, which Abe declared his administration will preserve, and the Asian Women’s Fund’s activities in South Korea need recognition — all the more so because they were not accepted by South Korean society. It is hoped that Obama’s message will be understood and appreciated as encouraging mutual efforts.

There has not been clear evidence that trust was enhanced between Japan and the US after Obama’s visit. Addressing the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the talks was genuinely commendable. But given that no agreement on the TPP was reached, Abe’s statement on visiting Yasukuni, and Obama’s statement in Seoul on comfort women which might be seen as pressuring Japan only, there are still tensions which require careful management.

The two countries still have much to do to strengthen Japan–US alliance solidity and mutual trust.

Kazuhiko Togo is director of the Institute for World Affairs at Kyoto Sangyo University and former Ambassador of Japan to the Netherlands.