Reaffirming the Japan-U.S. alliance

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and visiting U.S. President Barack Obama played up the “unshakable” alliance between Japan and the United States as the cornerstone of peace and security in Asia. But the Abe administration needs to realize that Japan’s troubled ties with its Asian neighbors negatively impacts its relations with the U.S. and take firm steps to reduce tensions with China and South Korea.

At a joint news conference with Abe, Obama said the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea — the subject of a bitter territorial dispute with China that has severely strained Tokyo-Beijing ties in recent years — are covered by the Japan-U.S. security treaty along with all other territories under Japan’s control. It was a symbolic assurance reportedly strongly sought by Japan as it prepared for the first state visit by a U.S. president in 18 years. It was the first such statement by a U.S. president, even though it essentially repeated what other U.S. officials have said earlier.

Tension rose between Tokyo and Washington when the U.S. government said it was “disappointed” after Abe paid a visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December, which raised the diplomatic ire of China and South Korea. The unusual criticism was an indication of growing U.S. concern that Japan’s soured relations with its closest Asian neighbors are damaging America’s interests in the region. Abe’s close aides responded by openly expressing their frustration that the Obama administration was giving priority to U.S. relations with China over Japan, while government officials here downplayed such remarks by denying that they reflected Tokyo’s official position.

Abe apparently began to tame his hawkish position on history-related issues after the U.S. sought to broker a trilateral meeting with Japan and South Korea to mend fences between its two Asian allies. Subsequently Obama, Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye met in The Hague last month on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit.

Since then Japan and South Korea have launched high-level official talks on the sensitive “comfort women” issue, but prospects remain dim for one-on-one talks between Abe and Park well over a year after they both took office.

Japan’s relations with China, meanwhile, remain frigid. The Abe administration wants a solid security alliance with the United States to counter China’s growing aggressive posture, including its claim to the Senkaku Islands. It believes that Japan needs to play a greater role in the alliance by reinterpreting the Constitution to be able to engage in collective self-defense with the U.S. Abe said Obama expressed his support for such moves during their Thursday meeting.

Abe and Obama repeatedly stressed that a solid Japan-U.S. alliance is crucial to peace and security in the region.

Obama also said that cooperation and involvement of China and South Korea are essential for resolving many of the region’s various challenges, including North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. But a more robust defense policy on the part of Japan will no doubt increase friction with China and South Korea. And while Obama assured Japan that the U.S. security treaty obligations apply to the Senkakus and that Washington opposes any unilateral moves to change the status quo by force, he urged that the dispute be resolved through dialogue, and called for confidence-building measures by Japan and China to avoid escalating the tension.

The U.S. obviously does not welcome Japan’s strained ties with its Asian neighbors. Reaffirming the security alliance with the U.S. alone will not resolve this problem.