An anxious Japan awaits Obama visit

TOKYO — In diplomacy, as in musical theater or opera, words go only so far before the music takes over. That proposition will be put to the test again when President Obama visits Japan later this month on a mission to America’s No. 1 ally in Asia that has gained new urgency since it was first planned months ago.

What had been projected originally as a trip primarily to speed up negotiations on the Trans Pacific Partnership regional trade agreement has been transformed into a test of U.S. solidarity. Not only words but gestures and body language between Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be scrutinized by officials, analysts and an omnipresent Japanese media.

According to officials and analysts in Tokyo, Abe’s administration is looking for yet another assertion of the primacy of the post-World War II U.S.-Japan alliance. And specifically from the president they want and expect a reaffirmation of statements already made by his secretaries of state and defense that the U.S.-Japan security treaty commits the U.S. to come to Japan’s aid if the growing tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea turn into a military conflict. The diplomatic wording for this is that Article 5 of the treaty covers the islands.

Ever since President Richard Nixon’s 1972 opening to China, Japanese officials and analysts have worried that Washington would focus its attentions on Beijing and in the worst-case scenario would try to create a so-called G2 directorate in Asia that would leave Japan on the sidelines.

Repeated assurances from Washington have done little to abate those fears in Tokyo, and they grow only more intense as China’s economy and military power expand and Beijing grows more assertive in describing its core interests and territorial claims. That rising power is often measured against two decades of relative Japanese economic decline and a nation slowly coping three years later from the tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima. (The economic decline is indeed relative. As a visiting British politician once famously remarked, “If this is a recession, I want one.” Japan and its 127 million people have created the world’s third largest economic power and to a visitor, Tokyo appears prosperous and adorned with fabulous restaurants.) Atop the local concerns, is tea-leaf reading of every possible indicator of relative American decline or diminished willingness to use or threaten military force.

And while Japanese officials decline to speak of a post-Crimea world (“I won’t give you that headline,” said one), analysts talk more openly of an increasingly dangerous five to 10 years ahead in the Asia-Pacific region. Already a major league arms race is underway from India to Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia. As the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted in its Military Balance book last year, for the first time in modern history, Asian nations are spending more than European countries on their militaries.

“We are going through a very painful process of creating a new type of world,” said one former diplomat. In this part of the world, that means dealing with China. And the pre-occupying question he raised: “Are the U.S. and Japan seeing eye-to-eye on China policy?” Japanese analysts see overwhelming strategic stakes in Asia and worry that the U.S. administration is more focused on merely managing the U.S.-China relationship.

Beyond a more assertive China, the Obama administration is also dealing with Abe’s more assertive and nationalist Japanese government. The Abe administration has taken steps that have gained Washington’s approval, especially asserting the primacy of the American alliance after its short-lived predecessors tried and failed to make a tilt away from the U.S. to China.

But in both Tokyo and Washington, there is agreement among analysts that Abe has created or exacerbated new tensions in the region that are complicating Japanese and American diplomacy. Foremost among them, the prime minister’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 World War II Class A war criminals are enshrined along with fallen Japanese military over the past century. Abe’s visit drew a rare public rebuke from the U.S. as well as new rounds of vitriol from both China and South Korea.

As Yuki Tatsumi, a Stimson Center analyst wrote in the Japan Times, the visit reignited concerns in Washington “about Abe’s capacity to make decisions based on broad strategic calculations.”

On the surface the shrine in central Tokyo, which is easily accessible on the city’s vast subway network, appears a placid place, drawing thousands of visitors of all ages amid blossoming cherry trees and vendors selling food for family picnics. At the shrine itself, visitors put coins in a fountain honoring war dead.

A museum on the grounds is more problematic. For instance, one of the panels in English asserts that World War II was set off by the U.S. oil embargo against Japan, which preceded Pearl Harbor by several months. Another tries to draw a historical line between Japanese occupation of Asian nations and their eventual independence from European colonialism.

As several analysts mentioned, the Abe visit to Yasukuni reflected his dueling instincts between pragmatism and nationalism. In a previous term as prime minister, he bolstered relations with Beijing. They are now in tatters and official dialogue between the region’s two major powers is minimal. Similarly, relations between Japan and South Korea have continued to deteriorate over territorial disputes and statements by some Japanese officials minimizing the issue of Korean women forced into prostitution by the Japanese army during the war.

And as several analysts here mentioned, there is a growing Japanese popular backlash against continued criticism from China and South Korea on the “history” issue and a feeling Japan already has apologized and paid enough for war-time atrocities. But the problem, as one Western diplomat put it, is that the Japanese governing class has never absorbed the lesson now embedded in German politics and psychology, that there is no statute of limitations on remembrance and atonement.

Indeed, the tricky part of President Obama’s trip, which also takes him to the Philippines and Malaysia, will continue when he goes from Japan to South Korea. The president did manage to organize a photo opportunity and brief meeting between Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye during the Hague nuclear summit, the first high level contact between the ostensible allies in months. Much remarked upon in Tokyo, though only barely noticed in Washington, is how South Korea under President Park is increasingly drifting into China’s political and economic orbit despite Seoul’s military alliance with the U.S.

But for Tokyo, as one analyst put it, there will be one overriding issue in the presidential visit — that the United States remains committed to a strong military presence in Asia. Often forgotten in the United States is that Japan is the U.S. forward position in the Pacific, with more than 50,000 U.S. military personnel based on the home islands and Okinawa as well as the port for the Seventh Fleet.

That analyst along with others asserted that psychology is as important as weaponry in deterrence, in this case dealing with China and what many here see as its push for regional supremacy and control of its neighborhood. The American president, he added, must show that “the U.S. commitment to Japan is a vital core U.S. interest.”

The Japanese will be listening for both the words and the music.

Michael D. Mosettig was the PBS NewsHour’s foreign affairs and defense editor from 1985 to 2012. He now watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks and writes occasional dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.