Prime Minister Shinzo Abe managed to achieve half of the two critical goals he set for Thursday’s summit with U.S. President Barack Obama: He succeeded in getting America’s pledge to defend the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, a vow likely to keep China in check.
But Abe failed to achieve the other goal, namely a broad agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. This was also a setback for Obama, who lobbied hard to seal the free trade deal. The two were thus unable to issue a joint statement after their talks.
But the security vow was significant.
“It is the first time that a U.S. president said . . . Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty applies to the Senkakus. This is important for sure,” said Mikio Haruna, a noted journalist who specializes in diplomacy and a visiting professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.
“Yes, Abe made certain progress. But it seems (the) TPP negotiations did not generate any results,” he said.
Article 5 of the treaty, revised in 1960, obliges the U.S. to defend Japan if a third country attacks “the territories under the administration of Japan.” In return, Japan is obliged to offer bases and facilities and allow the U.S. military to deploy to the country.
The treaty thus has long allowed the U.S. to project its military power through Asia and beyond during the Cold War.
But now many U.S. leaders have started worrying that America could be drawn into an unwanted war with China, which in recent years has pressed its claim to the Senkakus and now regularly sends coast guard ships to cruise around the islets in a cat-and-mouse game with the Japan Coast Guard.
At their news conference after the summit, Obama, following similar remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, clearly said the treaty applies to the Senkakus if a third country were to try to seize them.
“Article 5 covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands,” he said.
Obama also repeated the U.S. stance that Washington would not take a position on the final determination of sovereignty over any territory.
But Article 5 applies to the Senkakus because the islets have been historically under Japan’s administration, Obama said.
At the same time he stressed his remark does not represent any new Washington policy, just a standard interpretation of the Japan-U.S. treaty. “Our position is not new,” he said.He also urged a peaceful resolution of any disputes in the sea, in an apparent bid to avoid further provoking China.
“We stand together in calling for disputes in the region, including maritime issues, to be resolved peacefully through dialog,” Obama said.
“We continue encouraging a peaceful rise of China,” he added.
But as far as trade issues are concerned, Obama and Abe had few things to boast about during their news conference.
“From now on, two ministers will continue negotiations” in Tokyo, Abe told reporters.
“Thus the release of a joint statement will be properly done after seeing the result (of the talks),” he said.
The two ministers are Akira Amari, fiscal and economic policy minister representing Japan, and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. The two and other trade officials have engaged in marathon negotiations in the past weeks, but failed to show tangible results before the Obama-Abe summit.
Later Thursday, a senior government official said last-minute efforts to reach a TPP accord could continue until Obama leaves Tokyo on Friday for South Korea.
The postponement of the summit joint statement is considered a rarity for a prime minister.
Later the same day, Amari said he feels it is difficult for the two countries to reach any agreement anytime soon.
“I don’t think we can reach any conclusion over such a short period of time,” Amari told Japanese reporters, after finishing another round of talks with Froman following the Obama-Abe meeting.
“There are still some issues, including rather major ones,” he said.
Amari at the same time emphasized that Obama and Abe “have totally agreed” the TPP, if realized, would be “strategically important” and ordered Amari and Froman to continue talks.
Amari also said he and Froman have already had talks totaling as long as 40 hours this month.
Asked how difficult TPP talks he feels are now, Amari said: “If I was asked to serve a minister in charge of (the TPP talks) again, now I would say I don’t want to take it.” At the initial stages of the TPP negotiations, high-ranking Japanese officials maintained a tough stance against the U.S., believing Japan, with its huge markets, held the advantage because without its participation, any agreement would be meaningless for the U.S.
“I think time sides with Japan. For the U.S., TPP agreements without Japan would have no meaning,” a high-ranking Japanese official said at the end of last year.
“We don’t need to make any compromises, and should make some good agreements on the five product categories,” the official said, referring to beef and dairy products, pork, rice, wheat and sugar.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has pledged in elections not to abolish tariffs on those products despite strong demands from the U.S.
Meanwhile, American farmers, too, have put strong pressure on the U.S. government to have Japan abolish tariffs on beef and pork in particular. This has apparently made it difficult for Obama to strike a compromise.