With defense and trade issues still to be resolved, the summit from Thursday in Tokyo between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama is a high-stakes game for both sides.
Foremost for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it is a test of the military alliance with the United States, the cornerstone of his overall diplomatic strategy and the best hope for keeping China in check.
For Obama, it is a chance to appear the master statesman in the face of criticism that he failed to rise to the challenge in both Syria and Crimea, as well as demonstrate his avowed commitment to stay engaged in Asia, observers say.
“The credibility of the United States is at stake. The U.S. couldn’t cross the red line to conduct air raids in the Syrian crisis and the country could not stop Russia’s annexation of Crimea,” said Fumiaki Kubo, University of Tokyo professor and Japan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“Asian countries are wondering if the U.S. would just turn out to be weak in possible contingencies in and around the South and East China seas, where the U.S. has many allies,” Kubo said.
Abe, meanwhile, desperately needs Obama to come out with a strong statement in support of Japan in the event of a military clash with China over its claim to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are administered by Japan.
The two leaders are expected to address the importance of bolstering Japan-U.S. security ties during the summit. But it remains to be seen if Obama will specifically address the dispute over the Senkakus, claimed as Diaoyu by China and Tiaoyutai by Taiwan.
Overall, the environment discourages the trumpeting of a new, strong Japan-U.S. relationship.
Over the past few weeks, negotiators from Tokyo and Washington have repeatedly tried to bridge their trade differences to seal the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement before the summit. But they failed to find common ground on U.S. beef, pork and rice exports to Japan.
Without a TPP deal to boast of, the two sides will likely stress security advances in the joint statement issued after the talks.
Compared with his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama appears less eager to maintain a strong Japan-U.S. relationship. High-ranking Japanese officials say Obama is more businesslike and tends to blatantly seek concrete results in talks with foreign leaders, while Bush was more emotional and formed strong personal ties with then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Many Japanese fear the U.S. may lean toward China. Experts say Washington is concerned about being drawn into an unwanted war over the Senkakus, which are, after all, just eight small rocks thousands of kilometers from the U.S. mainland.
Indeed, unlike the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, China is an important strategic economic partner of the U.S. and is even regarded as a potential political partner on a number of global issues.
“When it comes to China, we seek to operationalize a new model of major power relations,” U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice said in Washington in November. “That means managing inevitable competition while forging deeper cooperation on issues where our interests converge in Asia and beyond.”
Initially, Obama had reportedly only planned to stay one night in Tokyo, which upset Japanese officials, who were hoping for a state visit. Such visits, because they involve an audience with the Emperor, usually require a two-night stay.
Obama later agreed to stay for two nights starting Wednesday.
“If the two leaders have the kind of close personal relationship that Koizumi and Bush had, it doesn’t matter how long the president stays in Japan. But Abe and Obama don’t have a relationship like that now,” said Toshikazu Inoue, a professor of international relations at Gakushuin University in Tokyo.
Still, Columbia University professor Gerald Curtis said America’s basic strategy in Asia remains the same: maintain a strong alliance with Japan and build a constructive relationship with China.
“What’s new is the danger that these two pillars of U.S. strategy sort of collide and they come into conflict with each other,” Curtis said.
“If the Chinese take provocative actions against Japan or use force to take the Senkaku Islands, the U.S. has to come to Japan’s assistance, not simply because we have the (security) treaty. And if we do not, (it’d mean) the end of the U.S.-Japan alliance.”
Toshihiro Nakayama, professor of American politics and foreign policy at Keio University, pointed out that Japan’s importance as a counterweight is increasing as China’s power grows.
“The U.S.-Japan alliance has increased its significance in the context of the U.S. hedging against China,” he said.
“But there is a distrust on the Japanese side, which is wondering if the U.S. is willing to demonstrate its commitment” to the alliance, he said.
The U.S. side, too, seems to harbor some distrust of Abe. Many observers in the U.S. have long wondered if he is a pragmatic politician or a dangerous nationalist who could stir up emotions in Asia by revising the history of Japan’s militarization leading up to World War II.
Since his inauguration in December 2012, Abe has emphasized that his priority is the economy and put dealings with China and South Korea on the back burner. He aroused U.S. concern again the following December when he ignored repeated warnings from Washington not to visit Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals along with Japan’s war dead.
Abe later tried to get back into Washington’s good graces by pledging not to revise a long-standing official government apology for the “comfort women,” the euphemistic term Japan uses to refer to the females it forced into its military brothels before and during the war. The issue has been a perennial stumbling block in Japan’s ties with South Korea.
Observers say the Abe-Obama meeting is an opportunity to mend fences after Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, especially since they are scheduled to revise bilateral defense guidelines by year-end.
The guidelines will contain more operational details related to the Japan-U.S. security treaty, which obliges the U.S. to defend Japan from third-country attacks.
James Schoff, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Asia program, said it’s important for Abe and Obama to have a candid conversation about potential contingencies in the region.
“I would hope at the end of this meeting Obama and Abe have a good sense of what each other expects and can do or would do in the event of some kind of conflict over the Senkaku Islands, for example,” said Schoff, who served as senior adviser for East Asia policy at the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense.