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With hundreds of well-wishers at his side, President Barack Obama welcomed Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the White House this morning. It was a beautiful, sunny spring day, and smiles were in abundance for this first of many meetings during Abe’s official visit. In private, the president and the prime minister had a full agenda of alliance priorities to discuss, and afterwards, issued a new Vision Statement for the alliance, suggesting that the U.S.-Japan partnership was turning an important corner.
Much of the energy comes from reforms within Japan, reforms Abe has championed for economic revitalization and for enhancing his country’s security. But the Obama administration’s “rebalance” to Asia has also raised the bar for the U.S.-Japan alliance agenda.
The alliance transformation envisioned by Obama and Abe also reflects a changing Asia. In the decade and a half since the Cold War ended, the region has been influenced by new security challenges, such as the nuclear and missile proliferation of North Korea, and has begun to be reshaped by complex economic and political currents that accompany an emerging China.
Obama and Abe have a broad spectrum of initiatives to cope with this changing region. In the security realm, the two governments have completed a revision of their military cooperation that takes into account these new regional challenges. Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter met with Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida and Minister of Defense Gen Nakatani, and they announced the revision of their bilateral guidelines for defense cooperation. Maritime concerns featured conspicuously in the guidelines, but so too did the announcement of U.S.-Japan cooperation in the new domains of cybersecurity and space. Japan’s concern with its island defense mission has been heightened since its tensions with Beijing over the Senkakus in the East China Sea, but broader considerations of how to upgrade alliance readiness were also part of the guidelines discussions. Most important was the announcement of upgraded crisis management mechanisms for the alliance, enabling Washington and Tokyo to be in close communications 24/7, and allowing not only for deterring aggression but also for coordination in preventing the escalation of incidents and accidents into conflict.
Obama and Abe have an even larger vision of how to move regional economic relations forward—the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The twelve-nation TPP, a novel trade agreement that raises the standards on environmental and labor protections, has become a shared initiative with Tokyo. During Abe’s first visit to Washington, DC, in February 2013, they began their bilateral effort to lead the TPP, and today, while they cannot announce the job is completely done, the negotiators have come most of the way on agreeing on difficult—and painful—market access issues.
His itinerary is full today and tomorrow. Prime Minister and Mrs. Abe will spend their time today with the executive branch of the U.S. government, including lunch with the vice president and secretary of state and a state dinner at the White House. Tomorrow will be another big day with a speech to the joint session of the U.S. Congress in the morning, a public speech in the afternoon hosted by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, and a gala evening at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery.
Abe’s speech to Congress tomorrow morning has been a focal point of commentary for months. It is the first time a Japanese prime minister will address a joint session of Congress, and this provides him with ample opportunity to reintroduce his country and his vision for its future not only to our legislators but also to the American people. A recent Pew Research Center poll notes that almost 70 percent of the American people trust the Japanese, and a similar percentage of Japanese feel the same away about Americans. However, in this seventieth year since the end of World War II, the U.S.-Japan relationship also must remember the road we have traveled from adversaries to allies. Celebrating this accomplishment is an important part of Prime Minister Abe’s week in the United States, but so too is exploring how we can support and encourage reconciliation and peace across the Asia Pacific.
Sheila A. Smith’s latest book is Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China.