It has been a grueling two years for Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has traveled to over 50 countries since returning to power at the end of 2012. But none of his visits will be as consequential as his weeklong trip to the United States at the end of the month. Abe is hoping to expand the scope of cooperation between Japan and the United States at a critical moment for Japan’s future and the United States’ position in Asia.
Abe arrives with a new mandate, having won re-election in December. He has already embarked on national security reforms and made serious attempts at revitalizing Japan’s economy, which has suffered from two decades of stagnation. In Washington, the prime minister will make an unprecedented address to a joint session of Congress. It has been 54 years since a Japanese leader addressed Congress, when Hayato Ikeda spoke to the House of Representatives. The rhetoric Abe uses – and the force with which he describes the shifting Japanese role in international affairs – will be just as important for the message it sends to his own people as it is for Congress.
Beyond the visit itself, the actions Japan takes will be even more significant for the United States and its future in the Asia-Pacific. The future of trade and economic agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) will depend in large part on the willingness of the Japanese to produce actionable compromises, as well as Congressional approval of trade promotion authority for President Obama. The long-term ability of the United States to begin selling much needed liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Japan will also depend on the short-term ability of the Japanese government to continue its support for U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Abe is also hoping to reinforce his country’s global re-emergence as the United States’ go-to partner in Asia, a region that will ultimately determine the future of U.S. global power. The Obama administration’s four-year “rebalance” to Asia has increasingly come under pressure from China, the United States’ greatest geostrategic competitor. For a world concerned with conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the United States’ rebalance to Asia may seem like a low priority. And U.S. leadership is increasingly being questioned by developments in the South and East China Seas. The creation of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), and the involvement of several U.S. allies against Washington’s wishes, has further exacerbated perceptions of American decline in the region.
Given Abe’s immense eagerness to reengage on the world stage financially, technologically, and strategically, Washington has a rare opportunity to capitalize on a partner in Tokyo with interests that align with, rather than diverge from, its own strategic priorities. A strong Japan also bolsters a U.S.-led, rules-based order and a stable Asia. The U.S.-Japan alliance has never been more consequential for a world in turmoil. But it is in need of clear direction and leadership. How the prime minister is received in Washington – by the White House and by Congress – will be crucial.
The totality of Abe’s visit will set an important precedent for Japan’s ability to deal with its past and look towards its future. Later this summer Russia and China will commemorate 70 years since Japan’s defeat in World War Two, reminding the world of Japan’s wartime past. In Washington, Abe will seek to turn over a leaf in Japan’s history, reinforcing to Washington and the world his country’s role as a contributor to a rules-based international order and celebrating Japan’s transformation into a responsible international stakeholder. This is President Obama best opportunity to capitalize on a re-energized ally that has the potential of helping steer Asia’s rise towards America’s interest for the next 70 years.
Walker is the Japan lead at the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Asia Program, vice president at APCO Worldwide, and previously served as a senior adviser to the U.S. State Department.