Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.05.01

Abe-Obama Summit: Winners, Losers and Lessons Learned

JBpress on April 28, 2014

Were there any winners or losers in last week's Japan-U.S. summit meeting in Tokyo? Reports from Japan suggested that Abe had won all that he wished for on security issues, while Obama did not get as much as he wanted on TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) trade matters. Though this was not the case, many still wonder whether there were losers out of the summit. My answer is "Yes, but China was not one of them."

In the security arena, President Obama must have stunned many who had predicted that his remarks on the Senkaku Islands would be more modest vis-a-vis Beijing. His reference, however, to Article 5 of the bilateral security treaty was a pleasant surprise for supporters of the Japan-U.S. alliance in Tokyo. In a joint press conference with Abe, Obama stated the following:

- Our treaty commitment to Japan's security is absolute, and Article 5 covers all territories under Japan's administration, including the Senkaku Islands.

- We don't take a position on final sovereignty determinations with respect to Senkakus, but historically they have been administered by Japan and we do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally.

- This is not a new position, this is a consistent one. There's no shift in position. There's no "red line" that's been drawn. We're simply applying the treaty.

Although the above is probably Obama's clearest presidential statement in support of Japan to date, it should be noted that Prime Minister Abe and President Obama were neither winners nor losers.

Abe did not win, because what was confirmed is the 54-year-old U.S. security commitment and because Japan did not get a more straight-forward statement vis-a-vis China. However, Abe did not lose either, because Japan did not make full concessions in the TPP negotiations which Washington desperately needed.

This is exactly the reason why Obama did not win: the U.S. Trade Representative could not strike a deal with his Japanese counterpart during Obama's state visit. On the other hand, Obama did not lose, because Obama neither took sides on Japan-China territorial disputes nor drew a notorious "red line" as he did with the Syrian chemical weapon crisis in September 2013.

So, in the end, who were the losers? Contrary to conventional wisdom, China was not one. Of course, Obama's references in Tokyo to the Japanese name of the islands ("Senkaku") and to the U.S. commitment over the Senkakus under Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty were considered a significant departure from the past by many in Japan.

Beijing, however, has never been naive vis-a-vis the U.S.-Japan security alliance. No matter what American presidents have or haven't said in press conferences, the leaders in Beijing, especially those in the People's Liberation Army (PLA), know exactly what the U.S. Armed Forces and Japan's Self Defense Forces have been doing around China over the past few decades.

Beijing has nothing to lose because U.S. support for Japan in a potential Senkaku (Diaoyu) crisis has already been factored into the PLA's war plans and operational tactics. Rather, the real losers might be Japan's political opposition and the New Komei Party in Tokyo, as well as South Korean leaders in Seoul.

Before Obama's arrival in Tokyo, there had been a heated debate in the Diet, Japan's parliament, about Japan exercising the right to collective self defense. Obama's clear support for Abe on this issue could be a game changer in this domestic political debate. Despite criticisms in some quarters of Tokyo against that right, Obama's clear support may have a favorable impact.

In addition, Seoul may also find it uncomfortable. With Obama's remarks in Tokyo on Japan's proactive pacifism, the right to collective defense and the U.S. commitment under the bilateral mutual security treaty, Seoul may face more U.S. encouragement, if not pressure, to soften its position vis-a-vis Japan and to realize a Park-Abe summit meeting sooner rather than later.

On April 25, Obama had a joint press conference in Seoul. While he rightly called the comfort women issue "a terrible, egregious violation of human rights," he also hoped to "keep our eye on the future and the possibilities of peace and prosperity for all people," reminding South Korea's President Park to look to the future, not only to the past.

Finally, at least one important lesson was learned in Tokyo: the merit and effectiveness of silent diplomacy. After the unfortunate official U.S. statement about being "disappointed," neither the American or Japanese governments talked about Abe's December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in public. This is the smart way, as had been practiced in the past, for the U.S. government to deal with Japan on the "history" issues.

It is obvious that the most important interest of the United States in East Asia and the Western Pacific is not to publicly discourage a Japanese prime minister from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. This time, the silent approach of the U.S. vis-a-vis Tokyo on "history" issues seems to be far more professional and effective than that of December 2013.