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Optimism Over US-Japan Relations Ahead of Abe's Visit

FILE - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to the media.
FILE - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to the media.

There is optimism about strengthening relations between the U.S. and Japan days ahead of a state visit April 28 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the United States. This sentiment was on display after comments by a senior U.S. official in Washington and rare bipartisan support by some members of Congress.

“We are close partners on the world stage, fighting Ebola, mitigating the impact of climate change, countering violent extremism, eliminating the threat of ISIL and other groups that challenge us,” said Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The comments come after Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter returned from a visit to the region and a greater push towards rebalancing towards Asia, amid more pressing priorities such as the conflict in Yemen and Syria.

“Japan is our most trusted ally in the pacific region and as we go forward we share an interest in human rights, in democracy, in trade and in making sure that our shared values are spread throughout the world,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), co-chair of the U.S.-Japan caucus.

Foundations of Partnership

“We oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine in any way the Japanese administration,” Blinken said while speaking at a U.S.-Japan town hall meeting. He was referring to a more assertive China in the region and reaffirmed that the U.S. would stand by a security agreement that it had with Japan.

In part, China’s actions in the East and South China Seas have “driven Japan much closer to the U.S.,” said Joshua Walker, a non-resident transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund and former State Department official.

China and Japan have been at odds over a series of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, and China recently announced a $145 billion military budget, the second largest in the world. Japan has also approved a record $42 billion defense budget.

“I don’t think the U.S. and Japan have ever been this close… but it comes more out of a sense of necessity,” said Walker.

As the 70th anniversary of World War II approaches, Blinken welcomed the revision of defense guidelines between two countries that were last revised in 1997. He said they would help Japan play a more important role in providing security in the region.

“What the guidelines will reflect is that Japan is playing an increasingly important and positive role in terms of being a provider of global security in the largest sense of the term,” Blinken said.

The revision of the guidelines highlighted the “richer and deeper role” Japan was playing in the defense security arena, he added. The guidelines are expected to be finalized at the end of this month.

In a flurry of activity before the visit by Prime Minister Abe this month, the U.S.-Japan caucus was also re-launched in Congress. Started in 2014, the 59-member strong bipartisan caucus has focused on promoting trade, development and national security between the two countries.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) made a surprise appearance at the re-launching, a sign of the importance of relations between the two countries.

“The spirit and friendship between our two countries will exist long after the cherry blossoms fade for the spring,” she said.

The sentiment is shared by Japanese officials.

“[The prime minister’s] visit will be history-making… he [will] address the past, present and future of the alliance,” said Japan’s Ambassador to the United States, Kenichiro Sasae. Abe will address a joint session of the Congress, something no other Japanese leader has done.

Trade Deal

One of the outstanding issues that remain in relations between the two countries, however, is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade negotiation between 12 countries that includes Japan and the United States.

Blinken emphasized the importance of a TPP deal for the economic benefits in a region that accounts for nearly 40 percent of global GDP.

“The real question is not whether we are going to be trading but how we do so, and are we going to do so in a way that advances our own interests and our own values or not,” he said.

But he also said the trade deal played a role on the “strategic level.” Blinken added that it would send a clear message that the U.S. would stay committed to the region, regardless of the security demands.

At the same time, it would act as a “magnetic field” for those countries that are not in the partnership and would strengthen values such as environment protection and labor rights.

“With Japan being a part of this, it is critical that we finalize this agreement… to show the rest of the world that trade can expand involving countries with different types of systems,” said Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA), co-chair of the caucus.

Much of the resistance to the TPP and the slow pace of deliberations within the U.S. has been over a fear of losing jobs.

While the U.S. government has said the Trans-Pacific Partnership could generate approximately $305 billion in world exports annually by 2025, questions remain over whether a fast-track authority of the TPP, known as the Trade Promotion Authority, will pass.