February 22, 2013 6:19 pm

Abe seeks to boost security links with US

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Shinzo Abe, Japan’s new prime minister, met US President Barack Obama in Washington on Friday, bearing a promise to strengthen Tokyo’s embrace of the US-Japan security alliance as a counterweight to a rising China.

The meeting was the first summit between the two leaders since Japanese elections in December. Mr Abe, a conservative nationalist, is trying to erase a perceived ambivalence about Japan’s relations with the US that was created by the previous centre-left government.

His broad message, and the theme of a speech to be delivered to members of the US foreign policy establishment later on Friday, was that “Japan is back”, as both a political and economic force, after years of unstable government and economic stagnation.

Japan has swapped prime ministers six times since Mr Abe first held the office in a short and scandal-hit tenure from 2006-7. One of his biggest challenges will be to convince the Obama administration that his second stint will last long enough for him to follow through on his pledges.

Mr Abe has made a promising start, launching an economic stimulus programme of increased government spending and looser monetary policy that has lifted the Japanese stock market and pushed his poll ratings to about 70 per cent. Analysts said he stands a good chance of solidifying his power this summer by winning elections for the upper house of parliament, where his party does not yet have a majority.

Washington has been broadly supportive of the stimulus effort, even as it has led to a sharp fall in the yen that has alarmed some of Japan’s trade partners. Mr Abe was expected to ask Mr Obama to help his cause by approving the export of newly abundant shale gas to Japan, something that could help bring down Japanese energy bills, which have soared since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster forced the country to increase imports of fossil fuels.

On foreign policy, the growing assertiveness of China – which is involved in a tense stand-off with Japan over ownership of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea – as well as well as advances in North Korea’s nuclear programme have made the need for stronger ties with the US more urgent in Mr Abe’s eyes.

He was expected to assure Mr Obama that he is working to ease self-imposed restrictions on “collective self-defence” – essentially, Tokyo’s ability to support operations by US forces outside Japanese territory – and the manufacture and export of weapons. Both have been curbed by laws inspired by Japan’s anti-war constitution.

The US has assured Japan that the Senkaku Islands fall under the defensive umbrella of the two countries’ longstanding security treaty. But it has refused to take a position on the underlying ownership issue and has made clear its extreme reluctance to be drawn into a Sino-Japanese confrontation. Few believe Mr Abe will receive any more eager support during his visit.

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