Was Abe’s trip a success?

That’s the argument made by an editorial in the Japan Times and Jun Okumura at GlobalTalk 21. The Yomiuri, meanwhile, was cautiously optimistic, suggesting that while there were positive results from the Bush-Abe summit, the future is unclear, and there is a greater need for better bilateral communication (a point I’ve stressed on a number of occasions).

Okumura, for his part, limits his praise to the abductions issue, as it seems to have been successfully shunted off the agenda thanks to Abe’s discussion with congressional leaders on Thursday. The Japan Times, however, suggests that unity has been achieved on North Korea policy.

But has it? My concern remains the same as it was when the February agreement was forged. If North Korea decides to comply in some form on the nuclear issue, but remains stubborn on the abductions issue, is the US really going to nix a potential breakthrough? Granted, I doubt a real breakthrough is likely anytime soon (or at all), but one should not underestimate the skill of North Korean diplomats, particularly when it comes to finding ways to outwit and divide the US and Japan.

The Japanese and English-language press have been full of stories praising Abe’s diplomatic deftness, and there is no question that Abe has a gift for summitry, arguably because it fits his profile as a Gaullist-style political leader concerned with the direction of the ship of state over the long term. Abe has subsequently demonstrated his deftness in the Middle East, and the Japanese people seem to have acknowledged his ability to conduct diplomacy with other heads of state and government.

But does Abe’s talent for diplomacy mean that his summits should automatically be judged a successful, particularly regarding his summit in Washington? Beyond the cordial facade, the US-Japan relationship has serious issues, not least the question of whether the US will continue to require the alliance with Japan as the foundation for its position in Asia in the coming decades (and the parallel question of whether Japan can afford to look solely to the US for support in the region). As the region becomes ever more fluid, will the US and Japan be able to sustain the political coordination necessary to confront regional challenges without a standing arrangement that unifies bilateral political and security planning?

In short, the Abe-Bush summit did nothing to address the fundamental disconnect in the alliance: cooperation between the US Military and the JSDF is deep and sustained, but it lacks a detailed plan for the future of the alliance, particularly if Abe succeeds in re-interpreting the constitution to permit limited collective self-defense. What is the purpose of the alliance? Is it a global alliance committed to spreading values shared by the US and Japan (as suggested by Foreign Minister Aso Taro’s initiative to create an “arc of freedom and prosperity)? Is it, as per Article VI of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, committed to the maintenance of the security in the Far East? If so, what does maintaining security in the Far East mean? Or is it simply an alliance for the defense of Japan, a purpose that seems increasingly irrelevant as Japan becomes more than capable of defending itself and the US prepares to realign its forward-deployed forces?

Can a US-Japan summit that did not even touch upon these issues be considered a successful summit?

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