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From ‘Abenomics’ to North Korean Nukes, President Obama and Japan’s Prime Minister Have Much to Discuss

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe waves at Tokyo International Airport on Feb. 21 on his way to meet with President Obama in Washington. Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images.

President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet at noon Friday at the White House. The two world leaders are embroiled in their own domestic economic issues, and just days before their visit, North Korea conducted another nuclear test.

We asked Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, about these and other issues that might top the leaders’ agenda.

North Korea

On Feb. 12, North Korea defied the international community by conducting another nuclear test — this time of a lighter device that packs a larger punch. The United States, China and others condemned the move, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, while the U.N. Security Council quickly met in New York.

The test, though difficult to independently confirm, “demonstrates that Pyongyang is moving along its arc of developing nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States,” James Acton, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on the NewsHour the day of the test:

“The U.S.-Japan cooperation on North Korea is fairly seamless,” Smith told us. The United States, Japan and South Korea will work together not only on a coordinated response to the latest North Korean provocation in the United Nations, but on possible deterrence and alliance consolidation in responding to further actions by Pyongyang, she said.

Island Dispute

China and Japan are jockeying for territorial rights of islands in the East China Sea that are rich in fish and potentially in oil and gas. (See a backgrounder on the islands in dispute.)

Tensions intensified early this year when both countries’ militaries got involved, causing concern in Washington over the possibility of an inadvertent clash, said Smith.

“De-escalating these tensions is of the essence, and both Tokyo and Washington are calling on Beijing to begin to develop some kind of maritime consultations that will decrease the likelihood of miscalculation by local forces,” she said. “Japan has begun bilateral talks with China that were interrupted last summer, and the United States, too, has been publicly and privately urging both sides to sit down and discuss how best to discuss their differences.”

On the Sept. 18 NewsHour, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Douglas Paal and the Atlantic magazine’s James Fallows discussed how the conflict between Japan and China is as much about national pride as about natural resources:

Trans-Pacific Partnership

When Abe’s party came to power in December, the prime minister said he would focus on revitalizing the economy by increasing Japan’s fiscal stimulus and encouraging the central bank to introduce a 2 percent inflation target.

Abe’s economic focus, dubbed “Abenomics”, included his establishing an economic competitiveness panel to advise him on a growth strategy, said Smith.

It also might include Japan’s joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a proposed regional free trade agreement. Analysts say Abe is receptive to joining the partnership though some members of his party are not, because they’re worried it could harm Japan’s agricultural industry, Smith said. Eyes will be on Abe’s White House visit to see if he alludes to the partnership.

The next TPP meeting is March 4-13 in Singapore.


Japan’s triple disasters in 2011 — the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown — launched a review of its nuclear energy usage and policies. As a result, Japan has shown an interest in purchasing more natural gas from the United States, and the two leaders probably will discuss that option, said Smith.

(View all of the NewsHour’s coverage of the triple disasters and the fallout in Japan.)

Child Custody

Another possible topic is the issue of child custody, specifically when a Japanese parent removes a child from a household in another country and brings the child to Japan without the other parent’s consent.

Japan has not signed the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which requires signatories to return the children to their country of residence. The United States has been pushing Japan to enter the agreement. The State Department says about 100 cases of American children brought wrongfully to Japan are pending.

Abe reportedly intends to have Japan join the convention, and he likely will update President Obama on those efforts, said Smith.

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