19.02.2017 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Some results of the Prime Minister of Japan’s visit to the United States

345234234234On February 10-13, 2017 Shinzo Abe made a remarkable, from various perspectives, visit to the US during which the Japanese Prime Minister held official talks with the newly elected American President – Donald Trump.

Shinzo Abe became the second (after the British Prime Minister Theresa May) head of the allied countries, which Donald Trump received officially. But this was not their first meeting.

Recall that on November 18, 2016, i.e. almost immediately after the presidential elections in the US, the Japanese Prime Minister already met with Donald Trump in New York. And that was the only meeting that the US president-elect found necessary to hold before the inauguration procedure.

Even then, in an informal setting, Abe raised fundamental questions that emerged in bilateral relations after the results of the presidential elections in the United States, which were completely unexpected for the Japanese leadership. We are talking about the consequences of the need for the United States to exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which had been constantly declared by Donald Trump during the election campaign, along with the full revision of the alliances’ format with American participation.

Recall that on the way to the signing of TPP, Abe had exerted much effort to overcome the resistance of the agricultural lobby. The prospect of launching this extensive multinational market for duty-free sales of Japanese products is of particular importance in view of the increasing problems of meeting the state budget, which are exacerbated by the costs of rapidly growing share of pensioners in the country’s population against the background of the continuous decline in fertility due to insufficient financial means for newlyweds.

The implementation of (what seemed of little importance) the election rhetoric on the virtual TPP destruction was the first serious blow for Japan, which came from a key ally in the person of its new President. Which, however, was guided only by his own country’s interests (as he understands them), rather than a desire to “hurt” an ally.

The new US administration’s same “only our own interests” became apparently the source of a second and equally serious blow. We are talking about Donald Tramp’s pre-election promises to radically rethink the United States’ military and political alliances.

However, on January 28, during a telephone conversation between the leaders of the two countries and also during the U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis visit to Japan a week later, Tokyo received assurances of the United States’ loyalty to the military and political obligations that are implied by different bilateral arrangements based on the Security Treaty of 1960.

The previous detailed “audit” at the highest level of the whole complex of these commitments, and the prospects for economic cooperation at the bilateral and regional levels was made in the spring of 2015 in a document entitled – “Joint Vision Statement“, signed by Abe and the former US President – Barack Obama.

Held informally in November, 2016 in New York’s Trump Tower, the main purpose of Abe’s meeting with Donald Trump, the newly elected US President, was to probe his position on the basic provisions of the policy document.

However, the official framework of the current negotiations in Washington gives a very different weight to the conclusions of the same issues that had been raised three months earlier.

In the “Military-Political” part of the “Joint Declaration” summary, adopted on February 11, 2017, a confirmation can be seen of all the aspects that had been indicated in the relevant sections of the “Vision” of 2015.

This is apparent from the very first sentences: “The inviolability of the US-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of peace, prosperity and freedom in the Asia-Pacific region. US obligations to ensure the defense of Japan with all disposable military capabilities, including nuclear and conventional weapons remain unchanged.”

North Korea provided a good reason to intensify US rhetoric about its commitment to Japan by launching a ballistic missile just at the time when both leaders were relaxing at Donald Trump’s estate in Florida.

The 2017 “Joint Declaration” includes a very important argument for Japan -extending the scope of Article V of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty to cover the Senkaku Islands, contested by China where they are referred to as Diaoyu Dao.

The main difference between the previous and current documents lies in the content of their “Economics” sections. In the center of Obama and Abe’s “vision” of the prospect of bilateral and regional economic cooperation was the TPP. But, in the current document, the order of the words used in the description of economic cooperation, is what draws attention: first, “own economies”, and then “bilateral cooperation” followed by cooperation on “regional” and finally, “global” levels.

As for the US withdrawal from the TPP, designated in the new document, the parties express their intention in some way to “adapt” to the conditions that follow from this fact and continue the “discussion” of the problems.

Without exaggeration, the US withdrawal from the TPP has created a fundamentally new situation in US-Japanese relations, for which neither side of the alliance are ready and which is apparently the reason for the conspicuous brevity of the signed document.

This begs a very important question: Will it be possible to maintain the strength of the US-Japan alliance, while only relying on its military-political component (with uncertainty of prospects of cooperation in the economic sphere)? The answer to this will significantly affect not only bilateral relations, but also the formation process of the regional strategic triangle: US-Japan-China.

This process has been gaining momentum since the middle of the last decade, when Japan began “peeling away” from the more or less unified US-Japanese center of power with the formation of the US-Japanese “side” of the aforementioned triangle. Its “length” has gradually increased, and this very “side” has begun to acquire some new features, which, among other things, is evidenced by the results of Abe’s visit to the United States.

Noteworthy is the restrained wording of Japan’s overall positive assessment of the results of Abe’s trip to Washington.

In particular, there have been suggestions that in response to Donald Trump’s confirmation of American commitments in the field of defense, Tokyo will be required to make concessions during the development of the new format of economic cooperation.

Certain characteristics of the other two “sides” of the triangle indicated above have also appeared. In particular, there is an occasion once again to note the hastiness of frequent alarmist assessments of the US-China prospects for relations with the new US president. This can be seen by the exchange of key signals between Washington and Beijing just at the beginning of Abe’s visit to the United States.

Foremost it is extraordinary for the US diplomatic practice to send a letter of congratulations addressed to Xi Jinping, dated February 9, on behalf of Donald Trump on the occasion of the Lunar New Year.

The content of the written message was intended as an “ice breaker” after the awkwardness arising in the personal relationship between the two leaders ensuing after the 18-day silence following Xi Jinping’s congratulatory message on the occasion of Donald Trump’s inauguration.

The White House official representative’s comments state that in this letter the US president expressed his hope for “the development of constructive relations to the mutual benefit of both the US and China.”

In turn, the Xinhua News Agency reported Xi Jinping’s positive response to Donald Trump’s letter as a whole and especially to the fragment, which expressed US Administration’s respect for the principle of “one China as the basis for the development of US-China relations”.

But, of course, the transformation of relations in the strategically important “US-Japan-China” triangle in 2017 will be determined not so much by printed or spoken words (although they are important), but rather by the actions of each of the leaders of the “corners”. So far, these actions are controversial, as illustrated, in particular, by the results of the Prime Minister of Japan’s visit to the United States.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook