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Shinzo Abe

Pearl Harbour visit shows Japan’s Abe has eyes trained on China and pacifist rethink

Andrew Hammond says the Japanese PM’s historic visit aims to showcase strong US ties in the face of China’s rise, and push for changes to Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 December, 2016, 12:36pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 December, 2016, 12:36pm

Shinzo Abe became on Tuesday the first Japanese prime minister to visit Pearl Harbour. Some 75 years after the attack on the US base there, he met Barack Obama for what will probably be the US president’s last bilateral face-to-face session with a world leader before he hands over power to Donald Trump on January 20.

For Abe, now four years into his second stint as prime minister, the meeting is a symbolic way to showcase to the world, especially China, the enduring strength of US-Japan relations, and he called for a “lasting alliance of peace and hope” between the two countries. The visit is the second leg in a year of reconciliation with the United States, following Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in May.

Watch: Shinzo Abe in Pearl Habour

The visit is significant, coming so soon after Abe’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A common thread is the concerns that Tokyo, Moscow and Washington share about a “rising China” in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.

Tokyo has been alarmed by the unravelling of the TPP, which opens up a window of opportunity for Beijing to assert itself

Abe has particular worries about China’s growing influence in the context of the uncertainties that Trump’s presidency will bring, with the billionaire businessman’s previous pledge to review longstanding alliances. Already, Tokyo has been alarmed by the unravelling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in recent weeks, which opens up a window of opportunity for Beijing to assert itself into the power vacuum that now exists around the trade and investment deal’s apparent collapse.

China’s alternative vision to TPP is for a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific plus a pact, for which discussions have been under way since 2012, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which would not include the United States.

From China’s perspective, these two agreements would be much more conducive to its national interests, by creating free trade areas with China potentially at the centre. And by playing a lead role in championing these initiatives, Beijing aspires to burnish its regional leadership credentials.

Watch: China eyes Apec trade leadership after Trump’s win

Tensions in the Asia-Pacific could also be exacerbated by the unpredictability of Trump’s impending presidency. Already China has been taken aback by the billionaire businessman’s questioning of Washington’s longstanding “One China” policy, and his phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, believed to be the first direct contact between a sitting US president-elect or president and his Taiwanese counterpart since the 1970s.

Abe knows his historic trip to Pearl Harbour could give him a lift in the polls

Moreover, there are also continuing tensions in the South China Sea where Japan has been planning to ramp up its activities through joint training patrols with the United States and exercises with regional navies.

This geopolitical context is also shaping Abe’s domestic political strategy. Abe knows that his historic trip to Pearl Harbour could give him a lift in the polls (his approval rating is already a strong 60 per cent) in advance of potentially calling a snap general election early next year. While a ballot is not technically required until 2018, Abe’s team is currently calculating whether an earlier poll could minimise losses for his ruling alliance, which currently holds around a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber.

Abe may never have a better chance of pushing through constitutional change

In the current fluid geopolitical landscape, which is being reshaped as key countries manoeuvre for advantage, Abe is seeking to overturn much of the remaining legal and political underpinning of the country’s post-war pacifist security identity, so that it can become more internationally engaged, an outcome he senses that Trump could favour.

Watch: Japan’s Abe has great confidence in Trump

One big, specific measure Abe wants to push for is abolition of Article 9. This is the clause in Japan’s post-war constitution which constrains the country’s military to a strictly defensive role rather than a conventional army, and has meant that defence spending has most often remained below 1 per cent of gross domestic product.

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe under pressure from right-wing to offer no apology during Pearl Harbour visit

Taken overall, the Pearl Harbour meeting represents Abe’s latest move to fortify Japan’s external alliance system in the face of China’s rise. He now senses that, four years into his second term, he may have a window of opportunity to also secure landmark domestic constitutional change around the country’s post-war pacifism, which will enable it to become more internationally engaged.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics