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April 28, 2015

Abe in Washington: What To Expect?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s weeklong visit to the United States this week and his speech on Wednesday to a joint session of the US Congress represent an unusual opportunity for Japan’s diplomacy.

Abe is the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint meeting of Congress. His visit coincides with Washington’s ambition to deliver on the pivot to Asia, through enhanced security cooperation and the negotiation on a new trade pact, in both of which Japan is the key party, and the need for a closer alignment of strategy in responding to China’s growing influence in Asia. There is a powerful alignment of interests and opportunity.

The prospects for strong outcomes on most fronts now seem good, despite the high and uncertain drama unfolding in the lead-up to the visit in Washington and on this side of the Pacific. For one thing, the hearings on ‘fast track’ needed to give authority to President Obama in negotiating the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal have moved into high gear and, with strong (and unusual for Obama) Republican Party backing, are gathering momentum. Though unlikely to get Congressional ratification before Abe’s visit, the bill has easily passed its first committee hurdle. Japanese and US negotiators are signalling that bilateral negotiations are on the cusp of conclusion though Abe is not going to announce this prior to the completion of ‘fast track’ authority since it would open up the opportunity for more US congressional bargaining. For another, China–Japan relations have picked up, despite the most recent and egregious textbook scandal in Japan. And Abe met with President Xi Jinping of China on the sidelines of the Bandung Conference in Indonesia last week, in a meeting that further eases the tensions in the relations between the two Asian powers.

Many things could still go wrong.

It is the context of Abe’s visit, and its proper management, that is critical to success. This year is the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II and the success of the visit not only depends on how well the weighty contemporary interests in the relationship are managed but also on how Abe confronts the history of Japan’s wartime relations with its neighbours.

His speech to a joint sitting of the Australian parliament last year was to be the model for how Abe might approach this delicate issue with the US Congress. On that occasion, early in the speech, Abe referred to Kokoda and Sandakan, two dark events in World War II in the eyes of his Australian audience. Kokoda was a brutal battle between Australian and Japanese forces in Papua New Guinea on Australia’s doorstep; only six among hundreds of Australians survived the death marches from Sandakan in Borneo.

Abe spoke (in English with a slightly different official Japanese text) of bright young futures cut short, offered his ‘sincere condolences’ and expressed gratitude for the forgiveness that had been extended by Australians to the people of Japan. There is a similar story to tell to US Congress and Americans about Bataan, Guadalcanal and Pearl Harbour and a relationship of reconciliation.

Yet the Canberra model is far from adequate under scrutiny on the global stage in Washington where America has to shape its relations with China, South Korea and the rest of Asia, not just with Japan. The United States cannot afford, as Ben Ascione argues, to a hostage across Northeast Asia to the Abe administration’s revisionist instincts. That is why critical observers, not only in Beijing and Seoul but also in Washington, will rightly be looking for something beyond the Canberra model. In this, the context of the impending anniversary of World War II is everything.

There are undoubtedly growing numbers of Japanese who subscribe to the view that is there is no apology for Japan’s wartime misdeeds that would satisfy China and South Korea. On this score, Americans and Australians are viewed in a somewhat different light. If Americans like Australians hear a sincere individual apology, this thinking goes, there needs to be less defensiveness by Japan in the 70th anniversary statement on 15 August. This is a disingenuous perception of how Japan’s relations with its region play into American (and Australian) as well as broader Asia Pacific interests. If Abe’s remarks in Washington are cast only with his immediate American audience in mind, it will leave not only Japan but also the United States with substantial problems in framing US–Japanese security and economic cooperation in their broader Asian strategic context. Abe’s speech to Congress needs to provide a clear signal to his end-of-war commemorative statement if it is to lift Japan’s diplomacy beyond the congressional moment.

Just what is the issue over wartime apology between Japan and its neighbours, particularly China and South Korea?

Tessa Morris-Suzuki gets to the nub of it in her heuristic analysis of Japan’s apology burden in this week’s lead essay in which she explains that the anniversary for solemn reflection is ‘at risk of degenerating into a word game’.

‘Abe faces a dilemma’, Morris-Suzuki points out. ‘He is a fervent nationalist who has pledged to “restore Japan’s honour” and denounced what he and his allies term “masochistic” dwelling on wartime misdeeds. But he is also a passionate advocate of the alliance with the US and knows that he must satisfy a US administration deeply concerned about worsening relations between Japan and South Korea’. It should be added that the United States is also properly worried about unjustifiable provocation of China and broader regional destabilisation.

If Abe expresses ‘deep remorse’, and neighbouring countries like China and South Korea respond by condemning his words as inadequate and demanding further apologies, most of the English-speaking world will — understandably — ‘condemn China and South Korea for pig-headed refusal to let bygones be bygones’. But there is much more to it than that.

As Morris-Suzuki explains, the problem is that Japanese, Chinese and South Korean audiences will not hear (or see in the official Japanese transcript) the word ‘remorse’. What they will hear (or see) instead is the actual Japanese word that Abe is expected to use: hansei, or its Chinese or Korean equivalents (fǎnshè/banseong). At a stretch that can translate to ‘remorse’ but it really means ‘reconsideration’ or ‘reflection on the past’, says Morris-Suzuki. The word that Abe needs alongside hansei is owabi or ‘apology’ from which former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in his famous statement did not shrink. Most English speakers would not know what is being lost in translation, but there are enough in Washington, if not in Canberra, who do. And the difference is abundantly clear to Koreans or Chinese.

The structure that underpins regional stability is changing, given, as Ken Pyle recently remarked, the travails of the US-led order and the likelihood of a multipolar order emerging in its place. Abe’s long-term goals remain unclear as he has yet to articulate a vision of what role a more independent Japan would pursue. In recent months China has been cutting more slack for Japan, to guard its relationship with America. South Korea doesn’t have to.

But if Abe messes with his words in Washington and undercuts the substance of Japan as everyone’s indispensable post-war peace-constitution-abiding asset for stability in Asia and the Pacific, the region is likely to become much more complicated again.

Courtesy East Asia Forum via Economy Watch


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