What to expect from Abe’s visit

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What to expect from Abe’s visit


This will sound counterintuitive to many Joongang Ilbo readers given the poor state of ROK-Japan relations these days, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s high-level visit to Washington on April 28-29 will be a net positive gain for Korea’s long-term national interests. Some aspects will probably be disappointing for the Korean government, but other agreements should not be.

First on the security agenda, the United States and Japan will complete the revision of the bilateral guidelines for defense cooperation the day before Abe arrives in Washington. This is a long overdue but nevertheless historically significant accomplishment. Unlike the U.S.-ROK alliance, the U.S.-Japan alliance is not joint and combined. For decades, Japanese governments did everything they could to avoid having any obligation to support U.S. forces in Japan in the event of a contingency. Finally, in 1978 Tokyo agreed to bilateral Defense Guidelines that would set the terms of how the U.S. and Japanese forces would cooperate, but that document only covered direct attacks on Japan itself.

Two decades later the U.S. government reached an agreement with Japan that those guidelines should be revised to cover “situations in the area surrounding Japan that have a direct impact on Japan’s security.” The American side thought it had a basis for planning how Japan would support from the rear area a U.S. response in the region - particularly on the Korean Peninsula. The Korean government welcomed the 1998 revised Defense Guidelines because the new approach strengthened the ability of U.S. forces to flow through Japan to the defense of Korea.

However, it soon became apparent that planning would not be possible because Japan still had no legal framework for exercising the right of collective self-defense. Last July, the Abe cabinet agreed that Japan should be able to exercise that right - granted to all nations under the UN Charter - and based on that decision, the two governments were ready to revise the Defense Guidelines one more time. Importantly, the decision would allow Japan to be integrated in the use of force by the United States from the rear, but not to dispatch troops for offensive missions abroad. And so when Abe and President Obama celebrated these newest guidelines, Korean readers should know that it enhances the security of the Korean Peninsula in important ways and poses no new risks.

Second, Abe and President Obama will likely announce that bilateral negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are very close to completion. It is unlikely they will announce actual completion, since Tokyo will not give its best offer on liberalization of sensitive sectors like agriculture until the U.S. Congress passes Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) giving the President the ability to put forward the final agreement for a straight vote. TPA legislation moved out of a key committee in the Senate this week, but will not have enough votes for passage in Congress by the time Abe arrives.

Nevertheless, there is enough momentum to TPA legislation that veterans of the Congress give it a 60 percent chance of passage in the weeks after Abe heads home. That would pave the way for the completion of a U.S.-Japan agreement, then agreements with all 11 negotiation countries, and ratification by the end of the year. Because of the U.S.-Korea (KORUS) Free Trade Agreement, everybody expects Korea to be the first new partner to “dock” into TPP. That would open hundreds of billions of dollars in new business per year according to some estimates and give Seoul leverage as it works on trade deals with China down the road.

Finally, there is the issue of greatest interest to the media: how Abe will handle issues like comfort women while in Washington. Those who expect the prime minister to say very much on this topic next week will likely be disappointed. The Japanese government’s view is that Abe’s speech in Congress and meetings in the United States are to celebrate the accomplishments of the U.S.-Japan alliance and not to settle issues in Japan’s relations with Asian neighbors. The prevailing view in Congress and the administration will not be so different.

However, key members of Congress and the administration are also quietly signaling that they hope to see at least some acknowledgment that the Prime Minister is sensitive to these issues in general and committed to improving relations in the region - particularly with Korea. Japan is an indispensable ally to the United States, but the interruption of trilateral cooperation with Korea and Japan has been a setback for U.S. interests. In that sense, Korea-Japan relations are important for Americans looking at the alliance with Japan next week.

More broadly, one can expect that some media such as The New York Times will criticize Abe’s speech, while others will welcome it. The opinion of the American elite on the Abe government divides along ideological lines much as it does in Japan. That said, the American people retain very positive views of Japan overall. Recent polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for example, shows that Americans consider Japan the fourth most trustworthy country in the world after Britain, Canada and Germany - and those numbers actually improved since Abe became prime minister.

A successful Abe-Obama summit that paves the way for passage of legislation in Japan to allow full implementation of the Defense Guidelines and also convinces the Congress to support TPA and TPP would be a big political win for President Obama. The administration does not expect the summit to lead to a breakthrough in Korea-Japan relations, but the White House would clearly also like to see the Abe visit contribute to momentum towards a positive Korea-Japan summit and more room for trilateral cooperation going forward. Whether it does so will be clear enough in a week.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 24, Page 28

*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

by Michael Green

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