Prime Minister Shinzo Abe goes before the U.S. Congress on Wednesday to present Japan as a stalwart ally that’s willing to play a bigger military role in Asia, a message likely to be embraced in Washington and greeted with suspicion in Seoul and Beijing.
Abe is due to meet President Barack Obama during a week-long trip started Sunday that will focus on promoting investment and trade and unveiling new guidelines on a defense pact that’s been the cornerstone of U.S. policy in East Asia since World War II. Still, it’s what Abe says or avoids saying about a Pacific conflict that ended 70 years ago that may determine just how effective that alliance remains.
The U.S. is urging Japan to shoulder more of the burden of its own defense but Abe’s efforts to do so, and the nationalistic rhetoric of some within his administration, have unnerved China as well as the U.S’ other major ally in the region, South Korea.
In the U.S., the war it fought against what is now the world’s third-largest economy is largely seen as history, even as Japan’s past remains a source of tension with its major neighbors. Japan’s perceived lack of contrition for its wartime actions has been particularly vexing for South Korea, hampering U.S. efforts to mount a united front against North Korea’s nuclear threat and China’s rising assertiveness.
“It is really a burden for Japan and it becomes a burden for the U.S.-Japan alliance,” said Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia.
“What is really frustrating from the standpoint of the United States is that if Japan had confronted its history in a more forthright and honest manner going way back to the post war period, then I think we’d find Japan able to play a much more important leadership role” in Asia, said Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Program at the University of California in San Diego.
Some in Congress are calling on Abe to use the visit to “squarely face history.” Twenty five representatives, including Japanese-American Mike Honda, a California Democrat, urged Abe in a letter to affirm previous apologies to “enhance Japan’s relationship with its neighbors through a vision of long-overdue healing.”
Japan has failed to achieve the kind of reconciliation Germany managed partly because its official apologies -- there have been several -- have been undercut at times by revisionist comments from politicians, including members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, and visits by Japanese cabinet members to the Yasukuni war shrine that honors the country’s war dead. Abe last visited Yasukuni in December 2013.
“It’s not that they’ve done nothing. It’s that they may not have done enough,” said Jamie Metzl, who served as a multilateral affairs director on the National Security Council.
Abe has been courting the leaders of China and South Korea, and there are signs his efforts with China are bearing tentative fruit. President Xi Jinping met with Abe at a conference in Jakarta last week after their initial discussion in November. In January the countries resumed talks after a break of more than two years on a mechanism to avoid confrontations in the East China Sea, where both claim ownership of the same uninhabited islands.
Abe though also prompted complaints from China and South Korea last week by sending an offering to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo that honors 14 Class A war criminals and saying there was no need to repeat the country’s previous apologies in a statement he’s due to make in August on the war.
In a speech in Jakarta on April 22, Abe mentioned “deep remorse over the past war.” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in response it was “very regrettable” that Abe did not offer “heartfelt remorse for colonial rule and invasion.”
South Korean President Park Geun Hye has refused to hold a bilateral summit with Abe until he does more to atone for Japan’s 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula and offer compensation to surviving “comfort women,” who say they were rounded up to work as sex slaves to the Japanese army. An 86-year-old survivor of a Japanese military brothel, Yong Soo Lee, has been flown to Washington to take part in protests.
Abe needs to make sure the war issue doesn’t overshadow his two main objectives in the U.S.: to bolster defense ties and complete trade negotiations, said Christopher Hill, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
“Needless to say, Abe will focus on the future and especially on being a good friend of the U.S.,” he said.
The U.S. and Japan are expected to complete the first revision of their defense guidelines since 1997, under which Japan will take on a more active role in the partnership. Abe has boosted intelligence sharing with the U.S. and reinterpreted the postwar pacifist constitution to let Japan defend other countries.
Abe will also cite gains in bilateral trade talks in Tokyo last week aimed at progressing a 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership that would cover roughly 40 percent of global gross domestic product. The Japan-U.S. discussions have been bogged down at times by differences over Japan’s rice and auto sectors, while Congress has been debating whether to give Obama fast-track authority to expedite pacts such as the TPP.
The two leaders may also discuss a new China-led Asia infrastructure bank that has signed up more than 50 countries as members even as both Japan and the U.S. demur on joining.
The U.S. is Japan’s second biggest trading partner after China. Two-way trade in 2013 was $214.1 billion, down 6.3 percent from the previous year. Japan is the U.S.’s fourth biggest trading partner after China, Canada and Mexico.
Abe arrived in Boston on Sunday, where he visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. He was due to attend a dinner at the home of Secretary of State John Kerry and will speak Monday at the Harvard Business School. In Washington, Obama hosts him for a state dinner on Tuesday before he becomes the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint session of Congress. He’ll also visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Abe’s tour, which takes in Los Angeles and San Francisco with their large South Korean and Chinese communities, may be punctuated by protesters demanding he show contrition in the government’s August war statement. In Tokyo a 16-member panel has been formed to consult Abe on the text, though the final wording will be his decision.
“We advise the prime minister but he does what he wants,” panel member Yukio Okamoto said April 6 in New York. “When we discuss these issues with him he always nods so it’s hard to tell what he thinks.”