Abe visit heralds new chapter in US-Japan relations

Shinzo Abe to develop ‘Japanese Davos’ for women-332

Following Shinzo Abe’s visit to the States, Scott Pastrick examines the opportunity for a new chapter in US-Japan relations and assesses its implications for President Obama’s foreign policy

Last week the United States welcomed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a much anticipated arrival that was met with great fanfare and a warm embrace for a leader that is seeking to reshape Japan’s economy and align more closely with the U.S. on foreign policy objectives. Over 8 days the Prime Minister visited Boston, Washington DC., San Francisco, and Los Angeles, meeting with business leaders, academicians and local residents to garner a better understanding of our country and building new bridges.

However, the real prize outside of the Formal State Department Luncheon and White House State Dinner was his invitation to address a joint session of Congress. Prime Minister Abe is the first Japanese Prime Minister to address a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress.

As Japan and South Korea grow apart and the line in the sand grows deeper with China, Prime Minister Abe’s trip to the United States was both necessary and important. Shortly after his arrival I met with one of his senior advisors and I asked him what Abe and the Japanese Government hoped to accomplish during this historic trip.

He informed me that the real focus, outside of the two important policy objectives- updating the defense agreement between Japan and the USA and finishing up the negotiations on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – was for Abe to demonstrate the importance of the Japan – USA relationship. He further suggested that the Prime Minister is concerned about a lack of transparency on the part of China and their effort to build the country’s military capabilities. Abe-san believes the new Defense guidelines and the Trans Pacific Partnership will work together and provide the USA-Japan alliance with the tools needed to manage and secure the region’s changing agenda.

An important step

Prime Minister Abe’s address to the joint session of Congress was an important step in building Congressional support for the Japanese agenda, both currently and into the future of the relationship with the U.S. The speech was received well with numerous ovations and positive comments.

There were some that voiced their displeasure with the Prime Minister’s reluctance to address more deeply the issue of how Japan has treated its Asian neighbors. A few members also pointed to Abe’s avoidance of his Government’s responsibility for the “systematic atrocity that was perpetrated by the Imperial Army.” However, despite these few pointed comments, the speech and his presence before the U.S. Congress marked a turning point that further demonstrates how far the Japan-U.S. relationship has come since the end of World War II. Abe choose his words carefully to point to the deep commitment Japan has to the United States and the world to be meaningful stewards for peace and prosperity.

Official Tokyo also advised that a portion of the Prime Minister’s trip would be devoted to rekindling and cementing relations, with an eye towards deeply bonding with the American people and their culture. Abe was looking for roads that led to the people’s hearts. I suggested that the bar was set very high by former Prime Minister Koizumi, whose visit to the USA included a trip with then-President Bush to Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland, demonstrating his deep love for an American icon, which excited observers.

However, beneath this need to bond socially, the Prime Minister never lost sight of his real quest- building out a framework that would lead to Japan’s enhanced position of “keeping peace and stability around the world,” a role that the Obama Administration has embraced as the Asian region continues to present challenges.

The new Foreign Policy course that Japan is seeking to establish is a bold move that cuts against traditional and cultural leadership directives and will lead to a more assertive, more aggressive Japan that has a mission to help keep economic prosperity, safety and security throughout the region. With these new foreign policy objectives also comes a symbiotic alignment with the United States on defense technology transfer and a direct military alliance, a. A move that signals to the world that Prime Minister Abe is acting decisively and directly in the interest of keeping the U.S. – Japan relationship strong.

Coupled with Japans quest for a stronger military alliance that seeks to promote greater stability and peace, Abe is dedicated to building economic growth and prosperity through his support for a Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement saying, “the trade agreement would help ensure the security of an area that accounts for 40% of the world’s economy and one third of global trade.” At the State Department lunch, that I attended, hosted by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, the Prime Minister explained that TPP extends far beyond just economic benefit- it is also about security. He commented further that its strategic value is “awesome,” and we should understand the far reaching impact.

Embracing change

Prime Minister Abe’s move to embrace military and economic change points to a major step away from the conservative, traditional, inflexible and change adverse ways that stymied growth for decades to a model that will challenge business leaders, both large and small, to transition away from inward methodologies, as they navigate the new trade partnership, which will enhance growth but undermine traditional Japanese business culture. However, the price for changed business practice and a move to the TPP open trade agreement that seeks to enhance Japans global trading position is a small trade off. One of the most obvious examples is the case of Japan’s agriculture industry, an industry at a crossroads that is in severe decline with an older work force, outdated farming methods in a country that is in need of enhanced yields and new farming technology.

Agriculture is a key market where change is essential. Rebuilding, retooling and re-launching this dying industry that will not be sustainable without Prime Minster Abe’s move for open market policy. In his speech at Stanford University, the Prime Minister spoke about the need for Japan to emulate Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial style of risk and innovation, saying that only then will Japan have the model to reshape the economy to a growth- based system built to succeed. However, winning over the hearts and minds of policy makers and farmers has not been an easy task, and one that leading politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are anxious about, as it is the rural farming districts that are a source of deep political support for the LDP candidates.

Six years ago, in the midst of the economic crisis, many Japan experts suggested that a silver lining was being created out of the need for Corporate Japan to push product growth targets, sales and marketing to a global scale, leaving behind the long time domestic model for profit that so many of the big companies enjoyed. This week Prime Minister took this one step further as he embraced, and called on Congress to support, a Trans Pacific Partnership that will help Japan to open its doors to global competition in sectors that have long been protected. This support comes at a time when Japan’s economy is beginning to feel an uptick while the next generation of business leadership is positioned to transition.

Prime Minister Abe came to the United States to enhance the relationship between our two countries and to demonstrate to the American people that Japan wants to be its closest ally and biggest trading partner. His strong message to Congress, and his interest in experiencing America on both of its coast lines, have all led to a successful trip leaving behind good will and stronger ties.

In the days ahead Japan will watch closely how the U.S. Congress deals with President Obama’s request for Fast Track Trade authority, as this will be the center piece to the long-term approval of the Trans Pacific Partnership. The Abe Administration will also be watching the impact his visit has had not only inside the United States but in the Asia region and throughout the world. Abe’s leadership has chosen a path for Japan that is more open, more transparent and less Japan-centric, which will lead to a new and robust future for the country.


R. Scott Pastrick is the President and CEO of the Prime Policy Group