Shinzo Abe

Abe and Obama must reassure Asia of their agenda for peace and growth

Simon Tay says Abe and Obama will have plenty to talk about when they meet this month - economic recovery, for a start - and none of it shouldinvolve dealing with China as a foe

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 6:16am

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made his first overseas visit to Southeast Asian countries. Very soon, he will make the more usual pilgrimage from Tokyo to Wash- ington, to meet US President Barack Obama.

What should he say to Obama as both begin their new terms in office? What do other Asians hope the two long-standing allies will focus on? The expectation - or fear - is that the conversation will turn to the other Asian giant not in the room: China.

The Obama administration says its pivot to Asia is to engage the most dynamic region in a depressed world. Partly. But it is not only the paranoid in Beijing who believe that competition with China has been a factor.

For Japan, the Abe administration is making its own pivot, to focus on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This comes as Sino-Japanese tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have boiled over in recent months - with street riots, jets being scrambled and incursions at sea.

With such developments, some predict the Obama-Abe conversation will focus on ways to mobilise their long-standing alliance to deal with Beijing. The South China Sea would be a hot topic. Manila - also an American ally - has challenged China, and the Abe administration has now promised to supply it with coastal patrol vessels.

With that and the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, there is concern that Abe - long seen as hawkish - will return from America with a deputy sheriff's badge.

Asians should hope otherwise. There is an alternative and pressing agenda.

Obama has set out legislative ambitions that will require time and effort at home, and not adventures in Asia. It's critical that the US economy - showing some positive signs - is set firmly on track to full recovery. This can help ease difficult questions about the budget deficit and provide momentum to other promised changes. Furthermore, the reality is that renewed economic vigour must be the foundation for America's long-term commitment and esteem in Asia.

Similarly, Abe faces domestic challenges. His "Abenomics" - a yen version of America's "quantitative easing" - is controversial medicine. But there is more optimism than there has been for years, as share prices in Tokyo show.

Abe should build on this mood, and aim to win the upper house election in the middle of the year. Victory could mean a longer stay in the top job than recent predecessors, who each lasted little more than a year. Security talk is of course necessary, and the US and Japan could usefully discuss how and to what extent either will respond to provocations and a possible incident at sea. But an anti-Chinese cabal is not inevitable.

The two leaders need to develop mutual understanding on economic policies. As the yen softens, the Abe administration needs to assure Americans that this won't go too far and trigger competitive devaluation. The two leaders also need to discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is a key Obama initiative to integrate 11 countries across the ocean and Japan's entry could add considerable heft to the group.

But the aim is for completion by the end of this year and it is unclear whether Japan wants to come on board, or would be welcome. The idea, floated under the preceding Democratic Party of Japan governments, must take into account the trade partnership's ambitious targets, especially in agriculture. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party has usually protected this sector to maintain rural support, and some suggest his hands are tied.

Yet, accepting the trade partnership could anchor the structural reforms that are precisely what Japan needs. Without such discipline, Abenomics might - like previous administrations - throw money at white elephant projects.

Even when security issues are discussed, there are hopes that China and Japan will contain their differences. Beijing has hosted the leader of the New Komeito party - the junior partner in Japan's ruling coalition - and the door is open for Abe and new Chinese leader Xi Jinping to meet.

Neither can give up their claims but stoking conflict would hurt them both. The world economy is in poor health and Japanese leaders would do well to find ways to live with China - with whom there is deep economic interdependence.

If that is what Abe says to Obama, he might well find that America faces similar issues. And, if both the US and Japan agree that there are good reasons and possible ways to maintain a steady relationship with a growing China, that would reassure the region.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and teaches international law at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post-Crisis Divide from America