I am back and so is Japan, declares Abe

Japanese Premier, visiting US, vows not to let country slip to second-tier status

Mr Shinzo Abe, making his second trip to Washington as Japan's Prime Minister, declared not only that he's back and that Japan is back but also that he would not let his country's status slip.

In a speech to the Washington- based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last Friday, he vowed that Japan will not become a second-tier country, as some US officials and academics had suggested.

"Japan is not, and will never be, a tier-two country. That is the core message I am here to make," he said. "And I reiterate this by saying, I am back, and so shall Japan be."

Mr Abe, who became Premier in late December, first visited Washington as premier in April 2007 during his earlier stint in the job.

He told the CSIS audience: "For the betterment of the world, Japan should work even harder. And I know I must also work hard to make it happen. So ladies and gentlemen, Japan is back. Keep counting on my country."

Mr Abe's other purpose in Washington was to demonstrate to the world - especially China - that Japan's security pact with the United States remains robust.

Emerging from a meeting with President Barack Obama early yesterday morning, a beaming Mr Abe told reporters: "I think I can declare with confidence that the trust and the bond in our alliance is back."

He claimed the alliance had suffered during the last three years of Democrat-led rule in Japan.

In contrast, Mr Obama said in a business-like fashion: "Japan is one of our closest allies, and the US-Japan alliance is the central foundation for our regional security."

The Abe-Obama meeting took place one month later than the Japanese leader would have liked.

After failing to get an invitation to Washington last month, Mr Abe toured South-east Asian capitals to boost security ties with them in hopes of checking China's growing maritime ambitions.

Tokyo and Beijing have been at loggerheads over the ownership of the tiny Senkaku islands, which the Chinese call Diaoyu, since last September.

Yesterday, Japan's coast guard said a Chinese government ship entered its territorial waters off the disputed islands, even as the Japanese leader vowed in Washington that he would not tolerate Beijing's incursions in the area.

But the Chinese ship moved out of the zone after about an hour, watched by a Japanese coast guard vessel, it said.

The influential Nikkei business daily said yesterday: "Mr Abe has realised his aim of impressing upon China that Japan's alliance with the US has been strengthened and that the US stands behind Japan. But the US does not want to see the confrontation between Japan and China worsen."

Under the Japan-US security pact, the US is obliged to come to Japan's defence if the Senkakus come under attack, a point that newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated in talks yesterday with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida.

The US is apparently concerned that Mr Abe's hawkishness could hamper efforts to heal Japan's rift with China.

Since coming to office, Mr Abe has talked about revising past official apologies for Japan's wartime aggression in China and elsewhere.

But he was smart enough to leave such rhetoric at home during this US trip. Speaking to reporters after his meeting with Mr Obama, Mr Abe promised to deal with the Senkaku issue "in a calm manner" as always.

In his CSIS speech, he described relations with China "as among the most important" and said "the doors" were always open for Chinese leaders.

In Washington, Mr Abe also succeeded in getting an assurance from Mr Obama that Japan will not be required to remove all its tariffs without exception if it decides to join the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional free trade initiative.

A joint statement said both countries recognise that they have "bilateral trade sensitivities", such as farm products for Japan and manufactured products for the US.

The confirmation opens the way for Mr Abe to announce his country's TPP participation, once he convinces Japan's vocal farm lobby that tariffs on home-grown rice, beef and other products will not be eliminated.

But the summit with Mr Obama obviously meant much more to Mr Abe than to Washington.

Reports said the usual joint press conference was not scheduled as White House officials did not expect much to come out of the talks.

wengkin@sph.com.sg