WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Washington was interpreted by some political analysts as confirmation that his second stint at the government helm has gotten off to a strong start.
On Friday, Abe agreed with U.S. President Barack Obama to bolster the bilateral security alliance, given the deteriorating security environment in East Asia amid North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions and China’s increasingly abrasive tone.
More importantly, Abe boosted his drive to kick-start the economy by securing the crucial U.S. concession that the prior abolition of all import tariffs is not a prerequisite to Japan’s entry to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade negotiations.
Following his return to Japan on Sunday afternoon, however, the prime minister’s favorable approval ratings may soon begin to falter.
For starters, Abe has yet to come up with a viable solution to ease the ongoing frictions with China over the Senkaku Islands. Chinese vessels for months have been repeatedly intruding into Japanese territorial waters near the disputed islet cluster, which Tokyo administers and Beijing lays claim to, but the Abe government’s response has been mild at best.
Meanwhile, attempts to persuade North Korea that it has little to gain from its nuclear and missile provocations have made no headway, as evidenced by Pyongyang’s nuclear test Feb. 12, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Pyongyang’s detonation of a third atomic device has triggered calls from around the world for the imposition of tougher sanctions on the regime of Kim Jong Un, and the latest standoff will only further delay a resolution of the North’s past abduction of Japanese citizens, an issue that has been pending for decades.
Abe has vowed to beef up Japan’s capacity to defend itself against the North Korean missile threat, not only through the security alliance with the United States but also by scrapping various constraints imposed on the Self-Defense Forces by the pacifist Constitution.
But to do so, he will first have to win a majority in this summer’s Upper House poll to give his Liberal Democratic Party control of both chambers of the Diet. The LDP already controls the Lower House after sweeping December’s general election.
On joining the TPP talks aimed at creating a vast free-trade zone among Pacific Rim economies, Abe remains unsure whether he can win over opponents within his own ruling party since the regional initiative is anathema to the agricultural sector, which predicts a flood of cheap farm imports would overwhelm many farmers — a core support group for the LDP.
During the Lower House election campaign in December, Abe pledged that Japan would not join the TPP discussions if it was first required to eliminate all tariffs without exception, including on sensitive agricultural imports such as rice and beef.
But following Obama’s clarification that this would not be a prerequisite step, according to a joint statement the two leaders released, Abe on Friday appeared to have begun shifting toward Japan participating in the TPP negotiations.
And with certain products to be exempted from the zero tariff principle — at least for the time being — Abe is now expected to attempt to convince the farming industry that entering the TPP would be in the nation’s best interests.
“It became evident that (the TPP) is not premised on tariff elimination without sanctuary,” Abe told reporters in Washington after meeting with Obama, hinting the LDP-led government is close to deciding to join the trade initiate.
Abe earlier said he would reach a conclusion prior to the House of Councilors election in July. But officials in Tokyo said he may not have that luxury, since Washington has just sent its strongest signal to date that it firmly wants Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, to take part in the TPP, implicitly prodding Abe to make a swift decision.
The Obama administration has apparently moved to help Abe keep his TPP campaign vow in the runup to the Upper House poll, according to Minoru Morita, a political analyst at the Morita Research Institute in Tokyo.
Abe had initially hoped to meet with Obama in January, but the proposal had to be abandoned because of the president’s crammed schedule.
However, government officials said it was also due to Japan’s failure to make tangible progress in key bilateral issues pushed by the U.S., including the TPP and the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture.
The previous Democratic Party of Japan-led government is believed to have lost Obama’s trust after trying to renege on a controversial plan agreed by Tokyo and Washington to move the base within Okinawa.
Traditionally, Japanese leaders seek to establish close ties with U.S. presidents as soon as they take office. Such relationships have often flourished in the past, especially between Yasuhiro Nakasone and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and between Junichiro Koizumi and George Bush in the early 2000s.
Still, a senior official in Tokyo said conventional friendship-building is not directly applicable in the case of Abe and Obama, whom the official described as a “pragmatist who will never be lost to emotion.”
“What we have to do is deliver results,” the official said.