Policies of Scale: Efficient Global Policy

Japan’s America Policy: Shrewd and Risky

In a small group, on-the-record meeting with Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae just days before Prime Minister Abe’s Washington visit, I was able to glean some insight into not only Japan’s goals for the trip, but its long-term strategy for getting more from the US than it wants to give as well. Success is by no means assured.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in Washington this week on a mission to deepen relations with the United States at a time when his region is becoming more insecure. Five days ahead of Abe’s visit, I had the opportunity to join an intimate and wide-ranging discussion with the Japanese Ambassador, Kenichiro Sasae, to hear about Japan’s strategy for accomplishing this objective. Two things became very clear from our discussion: (1) Japan’s strategy to strengthen relations with America center on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and a revised set of defense guidelines to govern the security relationship, and (2) this strategy is designed to overcome American apprehension of deeper relations. Once institutionalized, Japan hopes these two agreements will become a new foundation upon which an even deeper alliance can be built.

Japan and the United States already have a the defense pact, but given the dynamics of the region Tokyo is not comfortable relying on a security agreement created 70 years ago. Today, America’s economic interest in China, who is also Japan’s main security focus, undermines its commitment to Japan’s security. It is clear when speaking to Japanese officials in Washington and Tokyo that there is a palpable fear that America will not be aggressive enough in Japan’s true moment of need. The fear is not without justification.

Beyond Chinese-induced limitations, American officials fear that Japan’s poor relations with its neighbors are liabilities for American security commitments. If the security situation in the South China Sea were to take on an active military dimension, the poor Japan-South Korea relationship, for example, would make formulating and executing a strategy far more difficult and risky for the US.

To move past these American doubts and achieve stronger ties with the United States, Japan is placing a lot of importance on the substantive and symbolic significance of Prime Minister Abe’s visit. Ambassador Sasae called Prime Minister Abe’s visit “overdue” and pointed out that this is the first time a Japanese prime minister will address a joint session of Congress.

Japan hoped the visit would be the culmination of bilateral TPP negotiations, and Prime Minister Abe will use his address to Congress to make the case for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). TPA is a prerequisite for Prime Minister Abe’s signature on any bilateral agreements pertaining to TPP because he needs to see that President Obama has the mandate from Congress. Beyond economic considerations, Japan understands that America cares about countries with whom it has free trade; it is not a coincidence that of the 20 countries with whom the U.S. has a free trade agreement, 13 also have formal defense pacts.

Although Japan already has defense guarantees from the US, the power of TPP to strengthen America’s economic interests in Japan is significant, and if it can be paired with the newly updated set of defense guidelines, it stands to be a new insurance policy against American kowtowing to China. These guidelines broaden the geographic area where Japan could defend American forces, and specify which Japanese islands will be included in cooperative defense (an important win for Japan given China disputes their rightful ownership). They also cover emerging issues like cyber and outer space.

President Obama is eager to secure TPP and recently concluded negotiations over the new defense guidelines that better reflect today’s regional environment and new threats. But America is hesitant to go all-in, not least because tension in East Asia is rising, not falling, and it must take Japan’s poor regional relations into consideration when deciding whether to stand firmer against Chinese expansionism.

Japan does not appear to be yielding to American pressure to improve its regional relations. While Ambassador Sasae did not dismiss a role for America in these issues, he did tell me that they are issues for Japan to lead on, and that they will not be one of the issues Prime Minister Abe will bring up with President Obama during his visit.

In the face of differing views on some issues and uneven levels of motivation, Japan is pushing TPP and the defense guidelines agreement to institutionalize a new baseline for the alliance. Japan hopes that it will be more difficult for America to extend China leeway on security issues once the agreements become official, and that the momentum of these agreements will make it easier to gain more robust American involvement in the future. Japan appears to be betting that in free trade and more extensive security cooperation they will not only have a stronger security deterrent, but also that America will develop a stronger appetite to stand up for Japan. That’s far from a sure bet, but given Japan’s situation it seems like a smart one.

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