Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mr. Abe goes to Washington

Abe is set to begin his visit to Washington, which means that there is a surge of media coverage repeating the same questions that I have been asking at this blog for the past six months. Domestically, does Abe represent a return to the pre-Koizumi style of LDP governance? Internationally, is Abe truly committed to the alliance, or is he a Gaullist who views it more as a relationship of convenience (meaning Japan should have capabilities independent of the alliance)?

The doubts surrounding Abe come out strongly in Mary Kissel's interview with Abe in the Wall Street Journal, previously discussed here. Kissel makes the same point that I made in this post yesterday:
Mr. Abe might yet surprise on the domestic front; he deliberately mentioned that Japan's tax rates are higher than the OECD average--a signal corporate-tax burdens could ease. His team could aim for something small; perhaps by resolving a long-running dispute over U.S. beef imports, or by cracking open immigration.

But in the long run, that's not the kind of sweeping reform Japan so desperately cries out for. Mr. Abe needs to make Japan an easier place to do business for foreigners, break down regulatory barriers to trade and keep plugging away at the anti-reform base in the LDP. Period.
Once again, the Koizumi formula is the way to go: political reform must precede or accompany structural reform of the economy.

As for this weekend's agenda, the transcript of a press conference with Dennis Wilder, the National Security Council's Senior Director for Asian Affairs, is available here.

Several things stand out.

First, there will be no escaping the comfort women issue. Even if President Bush leaves it out of discussions, as I expect he will, press coverage of Abe's visit will necessarily mention the resolution before Congress and Abe's ambiguous response, from which he has backtracked.

Second, there will be no way for Abe to avoid comparisons with Koizumi, which, as I've mentioned before, is something that Abe's advisers are working assiduously to avoid within Japan. In part due to the heavily covered visit to Graceland last summer, Koizumi raised expectations of Japanese prime ministers in the US as well -- Koizumi indubitably became more recognized among Americans than all of his predecessors combined.

If you read the transcript above, there is much talk about the Bush-Koizumi relationship. Wilder even made clear that since leaving office Koizumi remains "a close friend." This means that throughout the weekend, this man

will be casting his shadow over the proceedings at the White House and Camp David -- and there's not a thing Abe can do about it.

Of course the US-Japan relationship is bigger than the relationship between the president and the prime minister, but close cooperation at the top facilitates greater cooperation at the ministerial and sub-ministerial levels, ensuring that the work of individuals focused exclusively on the bilateral relationship enjoys the blessings of the leaders who make the ultimate decisions.

So that's the big question for the weekend. Will Bush and Abe be able to forge a cordial relationship, that while not having the same bonhomie of the Bush-Koizumi relationship, will be able to serve as the basis for efforts to strengthen the US-Japan relationship during the waning years of the Bush administration and remove some of the doubts that have set in over the past six months?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why does it matter if they get along? Washington and many in Tokyo have written Abe off as gone by fall. The only excitement in this trip is Abe's meeting with Pelosi and the congressional leadership.

This trip is all about how Bush conducts himself as well as how tough Pelosi is. That is what Washington is watching. Abe does not matter.

Everyone will be just relieved if nothing at all happens before wheels up and on the Middle East.