The 20th Japan-US Security Seminar was held March 21-22, 2014 in Washington DC. Some 80 officials and experts, along with Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders, joined a robust assessment of the status and future of this partnership. Key findings include:
Japanese worry that US foreign policy retrenchment and broad isolationist sentiment among the public could turn into a policy of isolationism. They are also concerned about the US “leaning toward China” or becoming too accommodating to Beijing and complain that Washington has been insufficiently appreciative of the many positives put forth by Abe.
Japanese insist that the Abe foreign policy agenda is limited, bounded, and intended to improve Japanese capability within the traditional alliance framework.
US participants evinced great uncertainty about Prime Minister Abe’s motivations and ultimate objectives. Regardless of his current plans, they fear – and many Japanese agreed – that if his popularity were to fall, he would be pushed further to the right.
This uncertainty reflected a larger inability to read Japanese politics: the old LDP appears to have vanished and the political landscape has been transformed. The Cabinet reshuffle anticipated in the summer will be an important indicator of the balance of power in the party.
Japanese participants argued that atmospherics matter as the public assesses the Abe administration. An image of competence and strength (within limits) is extremely important. Eventually, results will be required, but after years of short-term, feckless prime ministers, a strong, purposeful, and focused leader pays dividends of its own.
It is too early to gauge the success of Abenomics. Long-term success depends on the “third arrow” of structural reform, which some prefer to characterize as “1,000 darts.” In the short term, the key indicator will be wage increases across the economy.
Japanese sense a lack of US commitment to TPP, given the traditional Democratic ambivalence about trade deals and fear that today’s GOP is less committed to free trade than in the past. They argue that Abe is prepared to make the “tough choices” regarding TPP but must first see some sign that President Obama is also prepared to do so.
The US-China relationship continues to be the biggest challenge for the US-Japan alliance. Tokyo for a variety of reasons is quick to see inconsistency and a readiness to accommodate Beijing in US policy toward China. US calls for engagement with Beijing despite unchanging and destabilizing Chinese behavior are worrisome; Japanese expect the US to react to Beijing’s unwillingness to compromise with a harder line. The seeming unwillingness to challenge Chinese misbehavior, the failure to honor red lines in Syria, the “weak response” to the Russian takeover of Crimea, and diminishing public acceptance of the US role as “global policeman” raise fears in Japan that the US will waiver in a crisis with China.
Participants on both sides believe that the Senkaku dispute is not just about territory but is “a test of wills” to establish the East Asian regional order and to also settle longstanding historical grievances.
Japanese participants worry that US acceptance of China’s proposed “new model of major country relations” will undermine the US commitment to the alliance, and that it is intended to “marginalize” Japan in the region and in US eyes. US insistence that Washington was deeply skeptical about this concept did not assuage these concerns.
To counter this concern, the US should advance a different organizational principle for the Asia Pacific, one based on values and a rules-based order that underscores the priority given to alliances. This should be the theme of President Obama’s Asia tour.
US participants argued that Japan must reassure the US as well; those reassurances should focus on the “strategic judgment” of the Abe administration, and that it will not advance domestic political interests in a way that undermine US national interests.
Japanese argued that historical and moral questions are distinct from security policy.
The Abe administration made important progress in security policy in its first year in office. Accomplishments include passage of legislation to protect secrets, creation of a National Security Council, production of a National Security Strategy, and articulation of new National Defense Program Guidelines. Washington needs to acknowledge this.
While justifiably proud of those accomplishments, there is a tendency to overlook ongoing problems in the alliance. Unlike previous years, Okinawa was barely mentioned even though Futenma relocation remains unresolved and potentially troublesome.
Key to the success of Japanese defense reforms will be the realization of genuine “jointness” in SDF operations.
US participants argued that good relations between Japan and South Korea are essential to meeting key threats and challenges to US and Japanese interests. Japanese participants agreed, but insisted that Seoul played the history card for domestic political reasons and to keep Tokyo on the defensive. All agreed that “Korea fatigue” was widespread throughout Japan.
All looked to the upcoming Hague trilateral as a positive event although Japanese worried that President Park would play politics at the meeting and Americans worried that Abe would make some remark that would undermine the otherwise positive event.
A straw poll at the meeting showed roughly 60 percent of participants thought Abe would again visit Yasukuni Shrine. While most acknowledged that such visits played to Beijing’s advantage and undercut Japanese interests, some Japanese argued that the louder the shouts were against the visits, the more likely there were to continue. US participants, while “disappointed” by Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, preferred to look ahead to the future of the relationship; the warning that Japan’s focus on the US response kept that incident fresh and did not permit the relationship to move forward largely fell on deaf ears, however.
Japanese will be looking for strong expressions of US support in the face of increased Chinese assertiveness during the Obama visit. Americans want Abe to focus on Japan’s post-war contributions, rather than trying to reinvent the past.