In Washington, Japan’s Abe Reaffirms American Alliance

The partnership with the United States remains the cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy.

Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe met with President Barack Obama in Washington on Friday for the first time since his Liberal Democratic Party won the election in December.

Abe arrived in the United States with strong domestic support. Some polls put his cabinet’s approval rating as high as 70 percent. This largely stems from budding enthusiasm for his economic policies and his commitment to protect Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands which China lays claim to.

At the top of the summit agenda, according to Japanese officials, were North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program as well as the situation in East Asia, i.e., Japan’s island dispute with China.

North Korea’s third underground nuclear test earlier this month and its ballistic missile program underscore the continued threat to Japan and the region. After the test last week, the American president phoned Abe to express his cooperation for seeking measures to impede the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs as well as to reaffirm the American commitment to Japan’s security under its nuclear umbrella.

Expect Obama to strongly repeat such commitments as North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is said to have told Chinese officials recently that Pyongyang will conduct still more tests if the United States continue their “hostile” policy of not agreeing to direct talks.

Japan’s dispute with China over their competing claims to the Senkaku islands, known as Diaoyu in China, continues to be a risk for escalating into armed conflict. While the United States do not take a position as to who has sovereignty, it believes that under the 1960 security agreement with Japan, the islands fall under Japan’s administrative control. Furthermore, the United States oppose the use of unilateral force or coercion to change this.

As such, reports of Chinese maritime vessels clashing with the Japanese Coast Guard around the uninhabited islands as well as combat jets being scrambled could result in a scenario that gets out of control and draws the Americans in. Obama will need to affirm the American position of opposing force to change the facts on the ground, else risk upsetting the balance in the region.

On the economic side, Abe pledged during his campaign to break the deflation that has weighed on Japan for the past three decades through pursuing greater fiscal stimulus and push the central bank to adopt looser monetary policy. In January, he announced that his plan of more domestic spending will increase gross domestic product growth by 2 percentage points this year. The Bank of Japan also announced that it will increase its inflation target to 2 from 1 percent.

The government claims that “Abenomics” is only targeted at beating deflation. This allowed Japan to avoid coming under direct criticism last weekend from finance ministers at the G20 conference in Russia for contributing to a global currency war by deliberately weakening the yen. The value of the Japanese currency has fallen about 10 percent against the dollar in the last three months.

The benefits of the weakening yen to Japan is two sided as the government reported this week that exports for January rose 6.4 percent, the first year over year increase in eight months. However, the weaker currency also resulted in a record trade deficit when imports from commodities, namely oil and gas, increased even more. Japan is relying on more gas for its power and trying to wane itself off nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster two years ago.

As such, Nikkei reported that Abe would ask Obama to allow exports of American shale gas to Japan to offset its dependence on oil from other Asian countries and the Middle East. American natural gas production has grown 33 percent since 2006, largely from shale, but some politicians in the country oppose exporting the stuff lest American energy costs increase.

The Trans Pacific Partnership, envisaged as a “high standard” free-trade area encompassing ten Pacific economies excluding China, is on the agenda too as the sixteenth round of negotiations are scheduled to take place in Singapore in early March. The Obama Administration has hopes of wrapping up negotiations by the end of this year but getting Japan on board may prove to be problematic as Abe campaigned against joining any trade agreement that does not have provisions to protect Japan’s rice farmers.

Above all, Abe wants to convey himself to the United States as a pragmatic leader and not the hawk he was during his first stint as prime minister. Accordingly, the two leaders will reaffirm the strength of the American-Japanese alliance, as it serves as the bedrock of American policy in Asia and the cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy.