Turning Japanese: Obama's 'Asia Pivot' Centers on Japan

How the island disputes are helping to warm the chilly U.S.-Japan relationship.

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President Barack Obama with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Oval Office at the White House, on February 22, 2013. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Foreign Minister, Fumio Kashida, spent the day in Washington meeting with President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry on February 22. The statements made by both sides as the talks came to end showed that the two nations were remarkably on the same page with regard to the issues of trade and security. Of the most significance was the apparent reaffirmation given by Secretary Kerry that the disputed Senkaku/Diayou Islands were covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. This means that, in the event of an attack on the islands, the U.S. would be treaty-bound to come to Japan's defense.

The success of the meeting surprised many people who follow U.S.-Japan affairs. Although the two nations are longtime allies, the relationship between the Obama administration and the revolving-door of Japanese prime ministers (Abe is the fifth Prime Minister elected by the Japanese legislature since Obama was first inaugurated in January 2009) has been anything but warm.

Disagreements between the Obama administration and the Japanese leadership first emerged back in August 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) wrestled power from the long ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The DPJ's incoming Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, announced that he wanted to "rebalance" the relationship between the U.S. and Japan. To be fair, the Prime Minister went out of his way to explain that this was not an attack on the alliance, which he continued to refer to as the cornerstone of Japanese diplomacy, but rather a long-overdue call for a more equal partnership between the two nations. In addition, Hatoyama felt that it was important for Japan to reach out to its neighbors and build an "East Asian Community," which would include closer ties between Japan and China.

On their own, Hatoyama's statements probably would not have raised many eyebrows in Washington -- they could be understood as a natural maturing of the relationship between the two longstanding allies. Nevertheless, a serious rift did occur when the new prime minister questioned an agreement brokered in 2006 involving the Marine Corps Futenma airbase on the island of Okinawa. The deal that had emerged after lengthy negotiations called for relocating the base to a less populated part of the island. Hatoyama wanted to reopen the agreement and pursue a solution that might move the base completely out of Okinawa. The U.S., however, had no interest in renegotiating the pact, and the prime minister's request was summarily dismissed by then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Because of commitments that he had made to the Okinawans as his party was seeking power, the prime minister continued to push the issue. The result was that the Futenma base remained a major point of contention between the U.S. and Japan. Although Hatoyama reversed his opposition in May 2010, his flip-flopping on the issue further weakened his status in Japan. The next month, after less than a year in office, Hatoyama resigned.

Although Hatoyama's successor, Naoto Kan, endorsed, at least formally, the 2006 agreement, relations remained strained. Many in Okinawa still passionately opposed the deal, and their concerns were taken seriously by other Japanese citizens who knew that the Okinawans bore the brunt of the U.S. military presence in Japan.

The tragic earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident that hit Japan on March 11, 2011 pushed the Futenma issue to the sidelines. Operation Tomodachi ("friendship," in Japanese), launched by the U.S. within hours of the triple disasters eventually involved more than 180 U.S. aircraft and ships, and at least 20,000 U.S. personnel. In addition to providing much needed food, fresh water, search and rescue support, and heavy machinery to aid in reconstruction, Operation Tomodachi supplied technical experts and materials to help the Japanese in their efforts to contain the radiation leak from the Fukushima nuclear reactors. The U.S. operation engendered an incredible amount of goodwill, especially in the affected regions of Japan.

It was not only Operation Tomodachi, however, that helped to drive the U.S. and Japan back together. In September 2010, a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese patrol boat in the waters off of the Senkaku Islands that lie south of Okinawa in the East China Sea. This was the first incident in what would become an increasingly volatile dispute between the Japan and China over who owns the islands (known as the Diayou Islands in China). The saber rattling between Japan and China continues, and has escalated to the point where there are very real fears that a misstep by either side could lead to a war.

One side effect of this dispute has been to push the Japan away from China, and towards the U.S. This movement was already well underway when the LDP returned to power at the end of 2012. Nevertheless, the new LDP Prime Minister, Abe, announced that restoring relations with the U.S. would be a top priority. Indeed, he wanted his first visit abroad to be to the U.S. The visit was delayed, however, ostensibly because of White House preparations for the president's second inauguration, but probably also because of a new issue that had emerged between Japan and the U.S.: Japanese participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP is a potential trillion-dollar free trade agreement between the Pacific-facing nations of Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Australia, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, the United States, Mexico, and Canada. President Obama mentioned the TPP during his recent State of the Union address, and it lies at the center of the Obama administrations much-touted "Asia pivot." Nevertheless, as it now stands, the U.S. already has free trade agreements with six of 10 countries that are parties to the TPP negotiations, including almost all of the larger economies. Therefore, it is difficult to see why the TPP is expected to have such a great impact on U.S. trade or U.S. relations with Asia. This would change, however, if Japan were to become part of the TPP. For the first time, the U.S. and Japan, the first and third largest economies in the world, would be joined by a free trade agreement.

Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the politically powerful organization of Japanese businesses known as the Keidanren strongly support Japan joining the TPP talks. The U.S. auto industry, however, worries that if Japan was to become part of the TPP, then tariffs currently placed on cars and trucks imported from Japan would have to be eliminated. Opposition is even stronger among Japanese farmers, who do not want their country to enter into an agreement that would potentially end the extraordinary tariffs that now protect much of Japanese agricultural from foreign competition.

Although Abe had given indications that he supported entry into the TPP negotiations, he had to be mindful that rural voters were crucial to the LDP's return to power. That is why there was speculation in Japan that the Obama administration delayed Abe's visit because they wanted the new Prime Minister to have a clear position on the TPP. In fact, the situation with the TPP was beginning to exhibit shades of earlier dispute over the Futenma bases, when at one point President Obama was said to have asked if then Prime Minister Hatoyama could "follow through" with his commitments on moving the Okinawan bases. In fact, it began to seem reasonable to expect that there would be no movement at all on the TPP issue during the meetings in Washington.

It was surprising, therefore, that the TPP issue was effectively defused by a joint statement issued after the meetings acknowledging that "that both countries have bilateral trade sensitivities," and that "it is not required to make a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs upon joining the TPP negotiations." This was basically an invitation from the U.S. for Japan to join the negotiations on exactly the terms that Abe needed. The "agree to disagree" understanding allows both the Abe and the Obama administrations the flexibility to move forward without offending core constituencies.

Perhaps even more important were the talks that took place at the same time between Kerry and Foreign Minister Kashida. In his remarks before the meeting, Kerry complimented the Japanese for the restraint that they had shown over the issue of the Senkuku Islands, and at least according to accounts in the Japanese press, there was a "mutual commitment" made to move forward with the already established Futenma agreement.

Kerry's reassuring statements about the Senkaku islands did not represent a change in U.S. policy, since Hillary Clinton had offered the same assurance back in 2010. Nevertheless, the symbolism of the current Secretary of State explicitly restating that commitment will raise temperatures among the Chinese leadership. In fact, one way of interpreting what happened during the meeting was that the U.S. and Japanese leaders were determined to demonstrate to Beijing just how strong the alliance between the U.S. and Japan was once again. How this message will be received in China - as either a warning or a provocation - may well be the most important question to come out of the meeting.