Handle with Care

Japan is Washington's most important Asian ally. But in some ways it's also the trickiest.

Junko Kimura/Getty Images
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

Don’t expect any big surprises when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Washington on Friday. The communiqué issued after his White House meeting with President Obama will contain plenty of soothing generalities. Both sides want it that way.

Most Americans, to the extent that they think of their closest Asian ally at all, have come to think of Japan as that most boring of countries, a place that produces good cars, weird toilets, and little in the way of real news. That view is no longer entirely up to date. These days Tokyo lies smack on the geopolitical fault line between a rising China and an apprehensive United States. And Washington can scarcely hope to manage the shifting balance of power in East Asia without the help of Japan, its most powerful friend in the region.

The problem is that Japanese leaders have a tendency to become their own worst enemies. And no one exemplifies this better than Shinzo Abe.

He’s a staunch conservative, a fact that resonates with voters at a time of rising skepticism about Chinese intentions. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a landslide victory in last October’s general election, returning to power after a rare five years in the wilderness. There’s no question that Abe is popular — and that’s due not least to his reputation as a China-basher.

Over the years Abe has established himself as one of the paragons of the right wing of the LDP, a conservative party that has ruled Japan for most of the postwar period. He has long been a supporter of efforts to revise history textbooks to minimize Japanese responsibility for World War II. He has denied that Chinese and Korean women were forced into prostitution by the Imperial Japanese Army during the war (the "comfort women" controversy). And he has questioned the legitimacy of the Allied war crimes tribunal that sentenced several Japanese leaders to death after the war. He has paid many visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the Tokyo site that honors the memory of Japan’s war dead (including 14 top-level war criminals). When Abe unveiled his new government in January, The Economist described it a "cabinet of radical nationalists."

Such positions predictably enrage some of the countries that suffered from Japanese policies, which accuse the Japanese of trying to shirk responsibility for their wartime misdeeds. The country that usually reacts the most allergically to efforts to whitewash that past is China, which lost somewhere between 10 to 20 million people during the war. Korea (now divided into South and North) was a Japanese colonial possession for more than four decades. For the Americans, this touchy legacy is complicated by the fact that China is not one of their allies, while South Korea is. Conveniently for China, the history issue frequently pits Seoul and Tokyo against each other, undermining U.S. efforts to forge a common front against Beijing.

And now, of course, an increasingly assertive China is throwing its weight around, threatening the strategic status quo in a number of places around East Asia. One of those spots is the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyutai in Chinese), at the very tip of the Okinawan island chain in the East China Sea. The uninhabited islands have been under Japanese control (with an interlude of U.S. administration after 1945) since the late 19th century, but Beijing insists they’re Chinese territory — a claim that inflames nationalist passions on the mainland (as well as on Taiwan, which also claims the islands). The Chinese government has repeatedly sent planes and ships into the area to probe Japan’s defenses, sometimes engaging in high-risk games of chicken with the Japanese Coast Guard.

Last year the Japanese government raised the temperature even further by purchasing the hitherto privately owned islands. (Lost amid the hysteria was the fact that Japanese leaders were actually trying to head off a gambit by ultra-nationalist Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, who had vowed to purchase the islands using municipal funds.) The Japanese move triggered a frenzy of indignation across China.

The terms of the U.S.-Japanese alliance commit the Americans to come to Japan’s defense if anyone attacks the Senkakus — a message reinforced by a U.S. delegation that traveled to both Tokyo and Beijing a few months ago. And it certainly isn’t in Washington’s interest to allow China to bully other countries into accepting its own territorial claims. (The South China Sea, where Beijing is pushing its ownership of strategically key islands that are also claimed by a range of other countries, is another hot spot.) But nor do the Americans want to see themselves entangled in local feuds that could spark a military conflict — a prospect recently assessed as a possibility At the same time, they certainly don’t want to see Japanese nationalists engage in antics that will not only unnecessarily aggravate Beijing but also keep Japan and South Korea at loggerheads.

So the trick for Obama is to find a way to bolster Abe while restraining him from rash behavior. It’s likely to be a tricky balancing act. The Americans are probably fine with Abe’s recent plans to boost his defense budget. Washington is perpetually urging the Japanese to modernize their Cold War-era military, deliberately named the Self-Defense Forces, and they certainly don’t want to see Tokyo roll over to the Chinese.

On the other hand, the White House is likely to see some of Abe’s other ideas as unduly provocative. His aspiration to revise the pacifist constitution could allow the Japanese to assume more of the burden for their own defense, and would presumably stiffen the national spine against Chinese demands. But it will also enrage the South Koreans, who will see it as yet more evidence of a putative return to Japanese "militarism."

Even more damaging would be an attempt to revise the landmark 1995 apology for the war issued by the country’s then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. Abe has aired the idea of rolling back that admission of Japanese war guilt (though his administration has since suggested that it will uphold the Murayama statement, perhaps supplementing it with an unspecified new one). Any effort to fudge Japanese responsibility for the war would be red meat for Abe’s more conservative supporters, but it would also be sure to undermine Tokyo’s relations with its neighbors, effectively strengthening China’s hand in the region.

Will it come to this? Probably not anytime soon. Abe faces an election for the upper house of the Japanese parliament in July, and he’s unlikely to make any radical moves that might jeopardize his party’s chances of scoring a big victory there. And despite the conservative lopsidedness of his cabinet team, the man who runs it, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, is a moderate who is said to exercise decisive influence over the prime minister. He appears to be arguing that Abe has to focus on his main challenge — repairing the country’s stagnant economy — rather than squandering valuable political capital on ambitious foreign policy shakeups.

History, indeed, suggests that pragmatism may prevail. During Abe’s brief previous stint as prime minister, which ended with his ignominious resignation on health grounds in 2007, he displayed a caution in his approach to China that stood at odds with many of his public pronouncements. Obama will undoubtedly urge Abe to pick up where he left off.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola