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Shinzo Abe Visits U.S. as Tensions Rise in Asia

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Washington this week, and the Financial Times has a good piece on the complicated political and economic currents affecting his agenda:

Mr Abe’s meeting with Barack Obama, the US president, on Friday is expected to focus on economic issues and, as ever, the US-Japan military alliance, cornerstone of Asia’s regional-security edifice since the second world war. […]

Mr Abe remains keen on extending the military partnership, which in spite of the presence of thousands of US troops on Japanese soil is circumscribed by Japan’s anti-war constitution. For Japanese conservatives, the growing assertiveness of China—tussling with Japan over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea—and advances in North Korea’s nuclear programme have only made the need for stronger ties more urgent.

Yet it is that very eagerness, analysts and government officials say, that has put some in the Obama administration on their guard against Mr Abe. Today’s US is less militant than was its Bush-era predecessor—and has more cause to fear stirring up trouble with China and Japan’s other neighbours. […]

Mr Abe is facing a difficult decision over whether to enter negotiations to join the trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade bloc, a US-driven initiative supported by Japanese business but opposed by farmers—two core constituencies for Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic party. He has said he will seek assurances from Mr Obama that Japan could keep tariffs on certain sensitive goods, presumably agricultural ones.

The big news here is that increased American attention in Asia is very welcome for Japan. Japan’s obvious worries about China make the U.S. a necessary partner in the region. But some old problems remain. Japan-Korea and Japan-China relations are still shadowed by traumatic 20th century experiences. The nationalistic Abe is no help in fixing this.

Japan and America’s goals are also not the same. Washington wants to encourage the development of some kind of Asian counterpart to the EU—a long term “concert of Asia” that reconciles past enemies and focuses on economic development and easing tensions. Tokyo (as well as Beijing and perhaps some others) sees the future more in terms of great power rivalries in which it hopes to prevail. Japan desires U.S. backing so that it will have increased leverage with China, while the U.S. objectives are more complicated.

This leads to an interesting situation in trade negotiations between Japan and the U.S. Abe is wary of the substance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement but is hungry for its symbolism, while the U.S. is very focused on getting an agricultural deal, without which no Democrat, possibly no president, could get Congress to back a new trade deal with Asian countries.

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