Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s week-long visit to the United States this week and his speech on Wednesday to a joint session of the US Congress represent an unusual opportunity for Japan’s diplomacy. Abe is the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint meeting of Congress. His visit coincides with Washington’s ambition to deliver on the pivot to Asia, through enhanced security cooperation and the negotiation on a new trade pact, in both of which Japan is the key party, and the need for a closer alignment of strategy in responding to China’s growing influence in Asia. There is a powerful alignment of interests and opportunity.
The prospects for strong outcomes on most fronts now seem good, despite the high and uncertain drama unfolding in the lead-up to the visit in Washington and on this side of the Pacific. For one thing, the hearings on ‘fast track’ needed to give authority to President Obama in negotiating the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal have moved into high gear and, with strong (and unusual for Obama) Republican Party backing, are gathering momentum. Though unlikely to be ratified by Congress before Abe’s visit, the bill has easily passed its first committee hurdle. Japanese and US negotiators are signalling that bilateral negotiations are on the cusp of conclusion though Abe is not going to announce this prior to the completion of ‘fast track’ authority since it would open up the opportunity for more US congressional bargaining. For another, China–Japan relations have picked up, despite the most recent and egregious textbook scandal in Japan. And Abe met with President Xi Jinping of China on the sidelines of the Bandung Conference in Indonesia last week, in a meeting that further eases the tensions in the relations between the two Asian powers.
Many things could still go wrong.
It is the context of Abe’s visit, and its proper management, that is critical to success. This year is the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II and the success of the visit not only depends on how well the weighty contemporary interests in the relationship are managed but also on how Abe confronts the history of Japan’s wartime relations with its neighbours.
His speech to a joint sitting of the Australian parliament last year is said to be the model for how Abe might approach this delicate issue with the US Congress. On that occasion, early in the speech, Abe referred to Kokoda and Sandakan, two dark events in World War II in the eyes of his Australian audience. Kokoda was a brutal battle between Australian and Japanese forces in Papua New Guinea on Australia’s doorstep; only six among hundreds of Australians survived the death marches from Sandakan in Borneo.
Abe spoke (in English with a slightly different official Japanese text) of bright young futures cut short, offered his ‘sincere condolences’ and expressed gratitude for the forgiveness that had been extended by Australians to the people of Japan. There is a similar story that can be told to US Congress and Americans about Bataan, Guadalcanal and Pearl Harbour and a relationship of reconciliation.
Yet the Canberra model is far from adequate under scrutiny on the global stage in Washington where America has to shape its relations with China, South Korea and the rest of Asia, not just with Japan. The United States cannot afford, as Ben Ascione argues, to be held hostage across Northeast Asia to the Abe administration’s revisionist instincts. That is why critical observers, not only in Beijing and Seoul but also in Washington, will rightly be looking for something beyond the Canberra model. In this, the context of the impending anniversary of World War II is everything.
There are undoubtedly growing numbers of Japanese who subscribe to the view that is there is no apology for Japan’s wartime misdeeds that would satisfy China and South Korea. On this score, Americans and Australians are viewed in a somewhat different light. If Americans like Australians hear a sincere individual apology, this thinking goes, there needs to be less defensiveness by Japan in the 70th anniversary statement on 15 August.
Read the whole article at East Asia Forum.
Image by CSIS on Flickr under the CC BY-NC-SA 2.0