Japan’s newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made his first overseas visit to South-east Asian countries. Very soon he will make the more usual pilgrimage from Tokyo to Washington DC, to meet the American President.
What should he say to President Barack Obama as both begin their new terms in office? On what issues do other Asians hope the two long-standing allies will focus?
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. This may be partly so. But it is not only the paranoid in Beijing who believe competition with China has been a factor.
For Japan, the Abe administration is making its own pivot to focus on ASEAN. This comes as Sino-Japanese tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have boiled over in recent months — with street riots, scrambling jets 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 Mr Abe — long seen as hawkish — returns from America with a deputy sheriff’s badge. Asians should hope otherwise. There is an alternative and pressing agenda.
IT’S THE ECONOMY
Mr Obama has set out legislative ambitions that will require time and effort back home, and not adventures in Asia. It’s critical that the US economy — showing some positive signs — be set firmly on track to full recovery.
This can help ease difficult questions about the deficit and provide momentum to other promised changes. More so, the reality is that renewed economic vigour must be the foundation for America’s long-term commitment and esteem in Asia.
Similarly, Mr 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. Mr Abe should strive to build on this mood, and aim to win the Upper House election in mid-2013. Victory could mean a longer stay than recent predecessors — who 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 devaluations.
The two leaders also need to discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This is a key Obama initiative to integrate nine countries across the ocean and Japan’s entry could add considerable heft to the group. But the aim is for completion by end-2013, and it is unclear whether Japan wants to come on board, or that it would be welcomed.
The idea, floated under the preceding Democrat Party governments, must take into account the TPP’s ambitious targets especially in agriculture. Mr Abe’s LDP has usually protected this sector to maintain rural support and some suggest his hands are tied.
Yet accepting the TPP could anchor structural reforms that Japan precisely needs. Without such discipline, Abenomics might — like previous administrations — throw money at white elephant projects and infrastructure.
Even when security issues are discussed, there are hopes that China and Japan will contain their differences. Beijing has hosted the New Komeito party leader — the junior partner in Japan’s ruling coalition — and the door is open for Mr Abe and new Chinese leader Xi Jinping to meet.
Neither can give up their claims but 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 Mr Abe says to Mr Obama, he might well find America faces similar issues. And if both the US and Japan agree there are good reasons and possible ways to maintain a steady relationship with a growing China, that would reassure the region.
This article was first published on 14 February in TODAY