HONG KONG: Shinzo Abe's first visit as prime minister to Washington has highlighted the difficulties Japan faces in playing the larger role in world affairs that he and the United States would like to see. Abe is hemmed in partly by the strength of Japan's ties to America, and partly by his own need to play to a domestic gallery.
To take the last point first. The stupidity of his earlier remarks on the Japanese Army's use of sex slaves during World War II meant that much of the visit's attention was taken up with his muttered apologies about the wartime use of "comfort women" while commentators parsed his language to see if it was sufficiently contrite. What a focus for a visit by one of America's most important strategic partners!
After comfort women came North Korea. Pyongyang is as easy a rhetorical target as one can find. Abe may have pleased American conservatives by appearing to warn Washington against being too accommodating with Pyongyang, but his hard line evokes little sympathy in the rest of Asia, which is conscious that Japan's position is driven more by the issue of abductees than by nuclear and strategic questions.
Japan has failed to identify a role for itself that finds space between being an ally of the United States and slavishly following Washington. That remains the case despite the fact that after taking office Abe visited various countries in Asia, and a few in Europe, before presenting himself in Washington. Many in Asia and beyond welcome the modernization of Japan's air and naval capability as a balance to China's huge investments in projecting military power. Washington's apparent willingness to sell its most advanced fighter, the F-22 Raptor, to Japan is not only very welcome but demonstrates Washington's trust in Japan and the increased military cooperation between the two countries.
For China, the sale is another reason to distrust Tokyo and to thwart Japan's ambition to join the United Nations Security Council. Other observers may see the fighter sale as evidence not of a larger global role for Japan but as example of a continued dependent status.
Japan's peripheral involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by providing noncombat ground support is also double-edged. It is both an example of Japan's willingness to come out of its shell by putting its forces to use outside the homeland, and an illustration of Tokyo's desire to prove its loyalty to the U.S. alliance.
After Washington, Abe went to the Middle East, a region where Tokyo seeks a larger role. But there are few signs as yet that Japan has the capacity to contribute much beyond its role as an oil consumer anxious to keep up with China in signing supply deals. Tokyo might like to be a political influence friendly to but distinct from Washington. But the means are elusive.
Abe's Washington trip also largely avoided important economic issues. An irritant over beef was dealt with in advance, and a "don't ask, don't tell" approach seemed the order of the day.
Tokyo is grateful that it has escaped the pressure for currency revaluation applied to China, even though yen undervaluation is almost as deliberate and at least as glaring as that of the yuan. The United States has political reasons for not wanting to get into a currency dispute with Japan - though in due course Congress might have other ideas.
Japan, meanwhile, seems incapable of defining its attitude toward bilateral trade agreements. China has been trying to sign trade accords with all and sundry in Asia. The United States has trade deals in place with Australia and Singapore and has reached - but not yet ratified - an accord with South Korea as it negotiates with other Asian nations. Japan may be right to believe that these are politically driven agreements that make little commercial sense. But Tokyo badly needs a policy toward them, and has to decide whether to aim for one with the United States.
Nor did the Washington visit yield anything beyond platitudes on emissions and climate change, issues which have practical importance for Japan as near neighbor of the world's largest emitter, China.
Abe's premiership began with an imaginative foreign policy initiative - visiting China first. But domestic priorities, verbal gaffes and lack of policy coherence have thus far failed to do much to raise Japan's role and profile in global affairs. His predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, did a better job.