President Barack Obama visited Japan on April 24-25 as part of his four-nation Asian trip that included South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. The fact that a US President visited Japan as a state guest for the first time in the last 18 years gave it considerable symbolic significance and seriousness. Second, the visit itself was made in the midst of deepening Japanese concerns on the reliability of US commitment to the bilateral alliance. Washington’s expression of “disappointment” at Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December last was taken by many Japanese as a virtual admonition of Tokyo. Third, the Ukraine crisis, despite Japan’s categorical support to the position taken by the G-7 countries, did indeed create anxieties in the minds of many Japanese on the future of controversial territorial issues in East Asia in which China is a party. Further, there was also a perception in Japan that American rebalance to Asia had lost its initial tempo and that the present Secretary of State John Kerry is too preoccupied with the Middle East to show much interest in Asia. Many in Asia doubted the “staying power” of Washington in a region that faces serious geostrategic challenges.
To be sure, one should also take into account certain strong reassurances from the US side. For instance, the bilateral Security Consultative Committee ( 2+2) which met in Tokyo in autumn last year and included both John Kerry and Chuck Hagel took some important steps on strengthening the bilateral alliance. They decided to revise the Guidelines for US-Japan Defence Cooperation to highlight the current strategic threats that the two countries are facing. They also decided to include space and cyber security within the ambit of the Guidelines. When in April this year, Hagel visited Japan and China, he sent a strong message to China warning it against attempting any Crimea-like action in Asia. He further expressed his appreciation to the Abe administration for the creation of the National Security Council, augmentation of defence spending in 2013 a gap of many years, and the adoption of a National Security Strategy and a new National Defence Programme Guidelines. Abe’s consistent efforts to pursue the goal of amending the Constitution so that Japan could enjoy the right to collective self-defence also were greatly appreciated by the Obama administration.
Given the conflicting backdrop in which Obama’s visit took place, it was very essential for the US President to reiterate that the US-Japan alliance would continue to be the cornerstone for regional peace and security. According to the joint statement issued by the two leaders, American rebalance to Asia and Abe’s “proactive contribution to peace” reinforce the alliance to play a leading role in ensuring the peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region. While both leaders affirmed their interest in building a constructive relationship with China, they have also expressed their serious concerns over the heightening of tensions in the East China and South China seas due to developments such as the increasing Chinese maritime capabilities and Beijing’s unilateral declaration of an air defence identification zone. The US shared Japanese concerns on the threats posed by China to the Senkaku Islands. For the first time, the US President categorically stated that the islands are under the administration of Japan and therefore fall within the scope of the security treaty’s article V which obliges the US to defend Japan.
Though both countries reached a fair degree of agreement on security issues, their views on the current negotiations on the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) diverged rather sharply and even delayed the release of the joint statement. Considering the TPP as a pillar of America’s rebalance to Asia, Abe soon after assuming office in December 2012 decided to join it. When he made his official visit to Washington in February 2013, he made a firm commitment to the TPP. Since then both countries have conducted protracted rounds of negotiations. Yet they have not found an acceptable solution to the entry of American farm products like beef and pork into Japanese market. The Japanese known for their protection to their agricultural interests are quite touchy about the zero tariffs demanded by the US. In addition, the Japanese demand more concessions to their automobiles in the American market. Since the US and Japan are the biggest economies in the 12- member TPP, a quick agreement between them will activate the TPP soon. Even though the joint statement stated that the two countries have “identified a path forward”, it appears that they still have a long way to go. The ministerial meeting of the TPP will most probably take place in Singapore in late May this year and it is therefore very important for both Japan and the US to come to an understanding well in time.
Both Obama and Abe underscored their commitment to economic and security cooperation with ASEAN countries where Chinese influence has seen a marked surge in recent years. Both are interested in assisting ASEAN littoral states in building their maritime capabilities so that they could effectively manage challenges posed by China. Japan has supplied patrol ships to the Philippines and Vietnam to counter the challenges it faces from Chinese assertive maritime postures in the South China Sea. President Obama during his visit to Asia, signed a defence agreement with Manila that would authorise the US to deploy its troops to the Philippines and jointly use military bases in the country in the coming years. The Philippines was one country where the US had a big military presence until the early 1990’s. The return of the US will enhance its military’s operational preparedness. Earlier, the power vacuum in the South China Sea area was taken advantage of by China to advance its maritime and territorial interests. China is involved in several maritime disputes with Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and the Philippines. In this sense, there is considerable support in the Asia-Pacific region for the US-Philippines accord.
(Prof K.V. Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)