US-Japan Relations, 2015-2017

One year has passed since (in The Asan Forum 3, no. 1) I analyzed US-Japan relations during the first two years (December 2012-January 2015) of Abe Shinzo’s second term as prime minister. This article assesses developments in the bilateral relationship since then, examining what can be expected in 2016 and assessing prospects for 2017 under a new US administration, taking into account discussions of foreign policy taking place during the US presidential primaries.


Mutual Accommodation, 2015

I characterized the US relationship with Japan between December 2012 and early 2015, from the standpoint of many in the Washington, DC policy community, as going through four phases: 1) honeymoon, 2) concern, 3) disappointment, and 4) ambivalence. Since the spring of 2015, the relationship might best be described as having settled into a sense of “mutual accommodation.” This accommodation reflects the strategic interests of both governments. From the perspective of the Abe government, maintaining a close US alliance has been essential, given the tensions in Japan’s relationships with China, North Korea, and South Korea. When President Barack Obama visited Japan on his state visit from April 23-25, 2014, Abe’s highest priority was to have the president declare publicly, for the first time, that the Senkaku Islands fall under Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty (i.e., that the United States would be obligated to come to the defense of Japan if China were to attempt to take possession of the islands by force) and that the US government fully supports the Abe government’s reinterpretation of the right of collective self-defense. On both points, the president accommodated Abe’s requests.


The mutual accommodation was consolidated with the eight-day trip that Abe took to the United States from April 26 to May 3, 2015, one of the longest trips to the United States undertaken by a postwar Japanese prime minister. Visiting Boston, Washington, DC, Silicon Valley, and Los Angeles, Abe demonstrated both to his fellow countrymen and to his Asian neighbors how close he was to the United States and showed that the relationship had recovered from the rocky period in 2009 and 2010 when some members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had questioned the US military presence on Okinawa and showed a desire to form a closer relationship with China. The trip was also an opportunity for Abe to demonstrate that this relationship had recovered from the public “disappointment” the Obama White House had expressed in reaction to Abe’s surprise visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on December 26, 2013.


From the standpoint of the US government, the Abe visit was an opportunity to showcase Japan as a strong and reliable ally in maintaining peace and stability in East Asia, especially to ensure that China and North Korea do not attempt to change the status quo by force. The close bilateral alliance was especially welcomed given the numerous security challenges the United States faced, whether in acts of terrorism at home or in continuing security issues abroad, including, among others, China, North Korea, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, the Middle East, and ISIS.


In addition, the United States welcomed what appeared to be progress in implementing “Abenomics”—the three-pronged program of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reform to lift Japan out of deflation and to revitalize the Japanese economy to achieve long-term sustainable growth. Finally, the United States was pleased to see Japan’s renewed commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Abe government’s cooperation to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion before the end of the year.


All of these elements—bilateral security cooperation, Japan’s economic recovery, and collaboration on TPP—were touted by Abe in his speech on April 29 to the joint session of Congress, the first-ever address to both houses simultaneously by a Japanese prime minister. His carefully crafted speech, entitled “Toward an Alliance of Hope,” was well received in Washington and by many Americans for its emphasis on the common bonds of friendship, values, and interests between the two countries and for focusing on the bilateral reconciliation and partnership that has been achieved in the 70 years since the end of World War II.


While Abe’s speech to the joint session served to appeal to members of Congress, the accommodation between the Abe government and the Obama administration was expressed in the “US-Japan Joint Vision Statement” announced on April 28. It begins:

Today, the United States and Japan honor a partnership that for seven decades has made enduring contributions to global peace, security, and prosperity. In this year, which marks 70 years since the end of World War II, the relationship between our two countries stands as a model of the power of reconciliation: former adversaries who have become steadfast allies and who work together to advance common interests and universal values in Asia and globally.


What is especially noteworthy about this vision are the seven “shared principles” that the document states are to guide the “global cooperation” between the United States and Japan:

1. Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity;
2. Commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes without coercion;
3. Support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law;
4. Expansion of economic prosperity through open markets, free trade, transparent rules and regulations, and high labor and environmental standards;
5. Promotion of globally recognized norms of behavior in shared domains, including the freedom of navigation and overflight based upon international law;
6. Advancement of strong regional and global institutions; and
7. Support for trilateral and multilateral cooperation among like-minded partners.


Not surprisingly, these seven principles show a strong resemblance to the six US priorities that comprise the “Asia rebalance” delineated in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s article “America’s Pacific Century” published in Foreign Policy in November 2011:

1. Strengthening bilateral security alliances;
2. Deepening working relationships with emerging powers;
3. Engaging with regional multilateral institutions;
4. Expanding trade and investment;
5. Forging a broadly-based military presence; and
6. Advancing democracy and human rights.


A comparison of these two lists reveals the evolution in the administration’s view of Asia between 2011 and 2015. Continuity can be seen in three priorities. Item 3 in the latter document is essentially the same as Item 6 in the earlier document (“advancing democracy and human rights”). Item 4 in the latter document is the same as Item 4 in the earlier document (“expanding trade and investment”), but elaborated to refer explicitly to the aims of the ongoing TPP negotiations (“open markets, free trade, transparent rules and regulations, and high labor and environmental standards”). Item 6 in the latter document is the same as Item 3 in the earlier document (“engaging with regional multilateral institutions”).


The differences between the two documents are instructive. Item 2 in the earlier document, which refers to the United States “deepening working relationships with emerging powers” (i.e., China, India, Indonesia, etc.) has been replaced by Item 7 (“support for trilateral and multilateral cooperation among like-minded partners”) [emphasis added]. Item 1 (“strengthening bilateral security alliances”) and Item 5 (“forging a broadly based military presence”) in the earlier document have been reinforced and now refer to concrete outcomes and results rather than merely process and form. Thus, Item 1 (“respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity”) and Item 2 (“commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes without coercion”) in the latter document are meant to show explicit US support for Japan’s position on the Senkaku Islands. And Item 5 in the latter document (“promotion of globally recognized norms of behavior in shared domains, including the freedom of navigation and overflight, based upon international law”) is aimed to assert US and Japanese opposition to Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and East China Sea as well as the Chinese imposition of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) announced on November 23, 2013.


The differences between the two statements stem in part from the fact that the 2011 document was meant to be a general statement of US priorities in the Asia-Pacific region, whereas the 2015 document was aimed to reflect the close ties and policy congruence between the United States and its close ally Japan. Nonetheless, it is unmistakable that the latter document reveals a heightened sense of concern by both countries about the rise of China, in both the economic and national security realms, and the desire to strengthen policy coordination on these issues. At least six of the seven “shared principles” in the “US-Japan Joint Vision Statement” can be seen, directly or indirectly, as being written with China in mind.


From Abe’s perspective, Japan’s tensions with its neighbors, especially China, heightened the need to embrace the United States in the areas of national security, politics, and the economy. Although TPP is primarily an agreement to promote trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region, in his speech to the joint session of Congress, Abe had this to say about it:

Furthermore, the TPP goes far beyond just economic benefits. It is also about our security. Long-term, its strategic value is awesome. We should never forget that.


From Obama’s perspective, the fact that US leadership around the world was being challenged by China, Russia, and others enhanced Japan’s importance as a reliable ally. This despite lingering concerns about what I described in my previous article as the perception among many in Washington that there lurks behind the realist “Good Abe” who wants to revive the Japanese economy a nationalist “Bad Abe” who wants to revise history, glorify Japan’s past, and “escape the shackles of the postwar regime”—all creating tensions with Japan’s Asian neighbors.


The Abe visit to the United States was considered to be a resounding success by both governments, and Abe enhanced Japan’s visibility in the United States by visiting not only Washington, DC but also Boston (to meet with the academic community), Northern California (to meet with the academic community and with Silicon Valley innovators and entrepreneurs), and Los Angeles (to meet with the Japanese American community in Little Tokyo and to visit the University of Southern California, where he had studied for three semesters in 1978). Although the trip was “officially” a success, an “unofficial” response to the trip came in the form of a letter issued on May 4 signed by 187 (later increased to over 450) specialists in Japanese studies, entitled “Open Letter in Support of Historians in Japan.” Signed by some of the leading Japan scholars in the United States, Europe, and Australia—including Ezra Vogel, John Dower, Akira Iriye, Ronald Dore, and Gavin McCormack—the letter read in part:

This year presents an opportunity for the government of Japan to show leadership by addressing Japan’s history of colonial rule and wartime aggression in both words and action. In his April address to the US Congress, Prime Minister Abe spoke of the universal value of human rights, of the importance of human security, and of facing the suffering that Japan caused other countries. We applaud these sentiments and urge the Prime Minister to act boldly on all of them.


Although worded diplomatically, the letter was clearly intended to urge Abe to go beyond the Kono Statement of 1993 and the Murayama Statement of 1995 and to take action to resolve the issue of comfort women. According to several who signed it, the letter was issued both to express disappointment that Abe did not deal more directly with issues of history in his speech to the joint session of Congress and to encourage him to do so in the prime minister’s statement that was expected in August to mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II.


This much-anticipated statement, issued on August 14, 2015, can best be described as a “balancing act” that tried to please all sides of the issue. Far longer than Prime Minister Murayama’s statement of 1995 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war or Prime Minister Koizumi’s statement of 2005 on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary, Abe’s statement included such key words as “invasion,” “colonial rule,” “remorse,” and “apology”—but indirectly and not in his own voice. While conceding that Japan “inflict[ed] immeasurable damage and suffering” on innocent people “in China, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and elsewhere,” his description of modern history includes enough evidence of Japan as a victim of circumstances (e.g., the Great Depression, Western protectionism, and Western imperialism) to satisfy fellow members of the Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), the influential nationalist organization that adheres to a revisionist view of history.


The statement did not explicitly backtrack on the earlier statements by Murayama and Koizumi, as some had feared might happen, and because the expectations had been set so low, the reactions were muted. Evaluations were in the eyes of the beholder, since each side could find something in the statement to support its own view of history. For instance, here is a reaction by a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, who focused on what the statement lacked:

Japan should have made an explicit statement on the nature of the war of militarism and aggression and its responsibility on the wars, made sincere apology to the people of victim countries, and made a clean break with the past of militarist aggression, rather than being evasive on this major issue of principle.


By contrast, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council took pains to emphasize the positive:

We welcome Prime Minister Abe’s expression of deep remorse for the suffering caused by Japan during the World War II era, as well as his commitment to uphold past Japanese government statements on history. We also value Prime Minister Abe’s assurances of Japan’s intent to expand upon its contributions to international peace and prosperity in the years ahead. For 70 years, Japan has demonstrated an abiding commitment to peace, democracy, and the rule of law. This record stands as a model for nations everywhere.


President Park Geun-hye, in her address on August 15 (South Korea’s Liberation Day), expressed her dissatisfaction with Abe’s speech as follows:

It is hard to deny that Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s statement of yesterday marking the seventieth anniversary of the end of the war, did not quite live up to our expectations.


But she also took note of Abe’s promise that previous Japanese cabinet apologies “will remain unshakeable into the future.” In addition, she held out hope for progress on South Korea-Japan ties, saying that “close friendship and cooperation between Korea and Japan are essential to the peace and prosperity of both countries and the rest of East Asia.” On November 2, Abe had his first bilateral meeting with Park since she assumed office in February 2013, and on December 28, the governments of Japan and South Korea announced an agreement on resolving the long-outstanding issue of “comfort women.” Secretary of State John Kerry issued the following statement endorsing the agreement:

We applaud the leaders of Japan and the Republic of Korea for having the courage and vision to reach this agreement, and we call on the international community to support it.


The combination of Abe’s speech on April 29 to the joint session of Congress, Abe’s statement on August 14 on the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, and the Japan-South Korea agreement on December 28 on “comfort women”—coupled with Abe refraining from officially visiting Yasukuni Shrine since his widely-criticized visit on December 26, 2013—have had the effect of reassuring the Obama administration that whatever views Abe may harbor privately about history, he is doing his best to suppress them publicly and to focus his energies on reviving the Japanese economy and on enhancing Japan’s defense capabilities.


In September, the Diet passed a package of legislation to strengthen Japan’s defense posture. Although the legislation was opposed by leading Japanese legal scholars who deemed it unconstitutional and by thousands of street protesters who feared it could embroil Japan in military conflict abroad, it was welcomed by the Obama administration. And in December, the United States and Japan agreed to a new five-year package of host-nation support for US armed forces stationed in Japan. Under the cost-sharing agreement, Japan will spend about JPY 189.9 billion (USD 1.6 billion) annually. A Pentagon spokesperson expressed the US government’s satisfaction with the outcome as follows:

What’s important to note is by [Japan] covering a share of our costs for the base workforce, utilities, training, relocation and facilities improvement, this host-nation support package will help sustain the US military presence in Japan, a key part of the United States’ rebalance to Asia and the Pacific. We appreciate the cooperation embodied in Japan’s host-nation support. This package will complement a series of significant accomplishments that have strengthened our alliance over the past year.


The agreement on TPP reached in Atlanta on October 5 was celebrated by the United States and Japan as a result of bilateral cooperation, and the Obama administration recognized Japan’s contributions accordingly. The next challenge will be to get TPP approved by the legislatures of the 12 member countries, a task made difficult because of the US presidential election in November 2016. In Japan, the resignation of Minister for Economic Revitalization Amari Akira (who had led Japan’s TPP negotiating team) on January 28 over a financial scandal complicates the Abe government’s efforts to get TPP approved in the Diet, although eventual passage is expected.


Prospects for 2016

After several ups and downs in 2013 and 2014, the US-Japan relationship under Obama and Abe reached a point of mutual accommodation in 2015. With Abe’s successful trip to the United States, his seventieth anniversary statement, passage of the security legislation, agreement on TPP, agreement on host-nation support, and the Japan-South Korea agreement on “comfort women,” sustained progress over the year was seen on multiple fronts: national security, the economy, and history.


Outstanding issues for 2016 include the long-standing controversy over the relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma from Ginowan to Henoko. On September 7 of last year, talks held since August 10 between the Japanese government and Okinawa Prefecture on the issue concluded unsuccessfully. On September 12, the government restarted construction at Henoko, but in October, Okinawa governor Onaga Takeshi revoked permits for Henoko landfill work, and the government responded by filing a lawsuit with the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court, converting the dispute into a legal battle that could last for years. The US and Japanese governments are in agreement, and the dispute now centers on negotiations between the Abe government and the government and people of Okinawa.


Japan will be hosting the forty-second Group of Seven (G7) Summit from May 26-27, and preparations are underway for it to host a series of 10 ministerial meetings throughout the year. The United States and Japan can be expected to work closely to coordinate on a variety of issues, ranging from counterterrorism to economic cooperation to climate change. In addition to the seven member countries, the European Union (EU) will be represented. A conspicuous absence from the summit is Russia, which had been a part of the Group of Eight (G8) summit for 16 years from 1998. It has not been invited to the annual meeting since 2014 because of its annexation of Crimea and continuing controversy over Ukraine. Abe has long hoped to build on his special relationship with President Vladimir Putin to make progress on the outstanding issue of the Northern Territories. Rumors persist of a possible Abe trip to a city in the Russian Far East or Eastern Siberia to be followed by a Putin trip to Tokyo, but Abe feels constrained by the G7, and especially the US, position toward Russia. The Obama administration is watching this closely and encouraging Japan to maintain close alignment with the G7 countries in their policies toward Russia.


The Six-Party Talks, initiated in 2003 after North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, saw six rounds through 2007. In April 2009, North Korea withdrew from the talks, and no meetings have been held since. Given the recent missile launching and nuclear tests by North Korea, it is unlikely that these talks will be resumed soon. But 2016 is certain to see close cooperation between the United States, Japan, and South Korea to deal more effectively with North Korea, as the United States continues to urge China to play a more active role in persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. China’s reluctance to play a more assertive role is creating doubts in the minds of South Koreans about its reliability as a long-term partner. And the provocations by North Korea have had the effect of bringing Japan and South Korea closer in their security and information-sharing cooperation, a welcome development from the standpoint of the US government.


The Japanese Side in 2017

Although many in the Japanese government thought the Obama administration during its first few years was naive and overly optimistic in its dealings with China, they now appear to be satisfied that Obama and his team have learned that the United States needs a more realistic approach. In this context, Japan has welcomed the US navy’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea as well as flights by Air Force B-52s demonstrating to both China and North Korea the US commitment to deploy assets to preserve peace and stability in East Asia. Japan does not welcome tensions between the United States and China, but it also does not favor Sino-US relations improving to such an extent that a Group of Two (G2) world will decide on the future of the Asia-Pacific region to the exclusion of Japan.


The timing in Japan of the election for the Upper House in July and the US elections in November will affect important decisions, including when the legislative debate on TPP will be taken up. In Japan, another uncertainty is whether the Lower House will be dissolved to call a double election this year—coinciding with the Upper House election in July as an alternative to a stand-alone election or two separate elections on different days. Speculation abounds on the merits and demerits to Abe and to the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) of doing so. The decision may rest in part on how the Japanese economy fares in the spring and summer.


On Abenomics, the first arrow of monetary easing and second arrow of fiscal stimulus implemented in 2013 yielded a depreciation of the Japanese yen from 80 to 120 to a US dollar and a significant rise in the Japanese stock market. However, the benefits have gone primarily to exporters and shareholders, who do not represent the majority of Japanese. In fact, the yen depreciation has greatly increased the price of imports, and the vast majority of Japanese, who do not work in large corporations, have not benefited from the increase in wages, which have been growing nominally but not in real terms. In addition, the third arrow of Abenomics—structural reform and policies for sustained economic growth—has seen much less progress than had been hoped. Thus, although Abe benefits from having few serious rivals in the LDP and from opposition parties in disarray, electoral support is not solid because the voters’ expectations that he will revive the economy have not been fulfilled. Opinion polls consistently show that the Japanese public wants the Abe government to focus on the economy rather than on security legislation, although the latter appears to be Abe’s personal preference. Real wages fell 0.9 percent in 2013, 2.8 percent in 2014, and 0.9 percent in the first 11 months of 2015. Not surprisingly, a recent Nihon Keizai Shimbun poll showed that 49 percent of respondents do not believe Abenomics will improve the economy, compared to only 27 percent who still believe it will.


The American Side in 2017

Two candidates have singled out Japan during the course of the US primaries. One target of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is what they see as “disastrous trade deals” the United States has entered into that “steal jobs from American workers and make us poorer.” Thus, both oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) ,Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and TPP. Given the criticism of such deals, it is difficult to envision TPP coming up for approval in Congress until after the November 8 election. Supporters are hoping that the lame duck session of Congress will approve it. If not, it will be left to the next administration and Congress, a development that could affect the timing of the other 11 countries (including Japan) in their legislative approval process. The primary debates so far have focused mainly on domestic US issues, but on occasion foreign policy issues have surfaced. The only presidential candidate who has consistently mentioned Japan is Donald Trump, usually in the context of asserting that “China, Japan, and Mexico are stealing jobs from American workers.” He has also criticized TPP by claiming that its provisions, agreed to by “incompetent American trade negotiators,” vastly favor the other member countries, including Japan, over the United States.


Trump has frequently labeled Japan a “currency manipulator” and often uses the example of a business colleague of his who told him that he was forced to buy Komatsu heavy moving equipment over Caterpillar equipment that is actually of better quality. The reason, according to Trump, is that Japan has manipulated the yen to be so weak that there is no way an American executive can justify to his shareholders not buying such cheap products, even if they are inferior in quality to American products such as those manufactured by Caterpillar. Another favorite anecdote in his stump speeches is to point out that Japan is a shameless free rider when it comes to military security. He explains that under the US-Japan Security Treaty, if Japan is attacked, the US side is obligated to go to the defense of Japan, but if the United States is attacked, Japan has no obligation “to do anything. Now what kind of a raw deal is that?” he asks.


If Trump ends up as the Republican nominee, or if he fails to attain that position but runs as a third party candidate, his criticisms of US policy toward Japan are likely to remain in his stump speeches and in nationally televised debates, which will force his opponents to respond or comment in some way. Trump refers to Japan less to criticize it than to use it as ammunition to criticize US officials, Democrats and Republicans, who have been dealing with Japan. He often explains, “I’m not criticizing the Japanese. They are fine people, and I have many Japanese friends. But they are really smart, and they take advantage of our incompetent government officials. I’m going to change that. I know many smart businessmen, like Carl Icahn, who know how to negotiate with these guys and get a great deal where America wins!”


We could see a major change in US policy toward Japan in 2017. Trump or Sanders would almost certainly abandon TPP. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, or Jeb Bush would likely take a more favorable view, but may not support it as it now stands. Hillary Clinton, who supported the negotiations when she was secretary of state, has said that the agreement does not fulfill the three requirements she had set, i.e., 1) create jobs, 2) raise wages, and 3) enhance US national security. Although the new administration may not support TPP, economic interdependence has proceeded to such an extent that it is difficult to imagine a wholescale change in the relationship, since most economic interactions are between corporations and individuals, behavior difficult to change unless legislation is enacted to force changes.


On the national security side, given the challenges of an unpredictable North Korea and an assertive China, disrupting the current security alliance would not be in the strategic interest of either country. However, a Trump or a Sanders administration may decide that the bilateral security arrangements require major adjustment. The candidate who would provide the most continuity and predictability for the US-Japan relationship is Clinton. She visited Japan several times as first lady during the Clinton administration, and her first overseas trip as secretary of state was there from February 16-18, 2009. In addition to her official meetings with Prime Minister Aso Taro, Foreign Minister Nakasone Hirofumi, and others, she engaged in activities that showed her interest in learning more broadly about Japan: she met with opposition party leader Ozawa Ichiro and others in the DPJ, she had an audience with Empress Michiko (whom she acquainted with as first lady), she visited Meiji Shrine, she met with the families of Japanese who had been abducted by North Korea, and she engaged in a lively discussion with students at Tokyo University.


According to the Office of the Historian of the State Department, Clinton visited Japan as secretary of state on three more occasions—May 2010, April 2011, and July 2012. The visit in April 2011 was especially significant because it was only a month after the Great East Japan Earthquake had devastated Japan, resulting in nearly 16,000 deaths. Clinton’s visit was one of the first to Japan by a foreign government leader following the earthquake and was seen by Japanese as a positive indication of the close ties between the United States and Japan.


Ever since the presidential election of 1984—when Ronald Reagan won re-election over Walter Mondale—the Japanese establishment (LDP, government bureaucrats, and the business community) has tended to prefer Republicans over Democrats to win the White House. Many factors can be cited for this, among them: Republicans have been seen to be free traders and Democrats as protectionists; Republicans have been seen as tough on China while Democrats have been accused of being soft on China; and Republicans, unlike most Democrats, have been seen as eager to do business with Japan after their government service. But the complexities of the Republican Party in this election cycle make it difficult for the Japanese establishment to maintain its old stereotypes of Republicans and Democrats. In this year’s election, the Japanese preference for stability, continuity, and predictability may lead them to favor a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in many decades.