Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared more positive about Japan joining talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement, saying high-level negotiations could lead to exemptions that many ruling party members are demanding.
"The TPP's significance will depend on whether Japan, which has the (world’s) third-largest gross domestic product, will join it," Abe said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun on Feb. 20 ahead of his first visit to the United States since returning as prime minister in December.
Abe, who will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Feb. 22, said the trip will demonstrate to the world that Japan-U.S. ties have recovered, a top priority of Abe’s administration.
"Regretfully, Asian nations have come to perceive the Japan-U.S. alliance as failing," Abe said. "It is extremely important to show the world that Japan-U.S. ties are back to what they used to be."
During the campaign for the Lower House election in December, Abe criticized the "diplomatic defeat" of the then ruling Democratic Party of Japan. Soon after the DPJ took over the government in 2009, ties between Tokyo and Washington started to fray, mainly over the delay in the agreed-upon relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture.
"I want to tell (Obama) that a revival of an (economically) powerful Japan has positive consequences for Japan-U.S. relations,” Abe said. “With defense spending increasing for the first time in 11 years, Japan will be fulfilling its own responsibility in the Asia-Pacific region. Tokyo will not just be asking Washington to do it a favor, but it will be doing what it can do on its own. Sending that kind of message will help reinforce the Japan-U.S. alliance."
The TPP agreement will likely be raised during the Abe-Obama summit within the broader picture of strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance.
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party said in its Lower House election pledge that it opposes Japan's participation in the TPP talks as long as the agreement presupposes the abolition of all tariffs without exception. LDP lawmakers with ties to Japan’s agriculture sector are particularly opposed to the TPP.
But Abe indicated he will mention to Obama that both Tokyo and Washington want to see some items exempted from the tariff rule.
"I wonder if everything that has been put on the table for the TPP talks should remain on the table through the end," Abe said. "Washington may have second thoughts and decide to want to create exemptions as a result of the talks.
“Through working-level negotiations alone, it remains difficult to override officially stated principles on exemptions. Every country wants its own economy to thrive on free trade while preserving its own traditions. So there ought to be exemptions. I want to make that point clear during the summit."
Abe indicated he will make a political decision on whether Japan will join the TPP talks soon after he returns from the United States.
"I will absolutely never make a decision that goes against (Japan's) national interests just because it can't be helped under the alliance," Abe said. "I will keep my promise to the voters. Only when I am confident that I can provide an explanation to the general public will I ever decide on whether (Japan) will or will not join (the TPP talks).
“I will be making that decision. Once I am back home, I will analyze the previous process of the talks and their consequences and will make a decision without taking too much time."
The prime minister said he is confident that he can solidify opinion within the LDP, which remains split over the TPP.
"There have sometimes been disagreements, but down to this day, the LDP has always followed the line set by its president in the end," Abe said. "That's what a sense of responsibility as a ruling party means. That's what politics is."
Ensuring Japan-U.S. security cooperation is another key issue for Abe amid rising tensions in East Asia.
North Korea test-fired a long-range ballistic missile in December and conducted its third nuclear test on Feb. 12.
Abe said North Korea’s moves pose a threat to both Tokyo and Washington, adding that he hopes to work with U.S. authorities on imposing new sanctions against the reclusive country.
"The U.S. mainland is now within the range (of North Korea's ballistic missiles), and Pyongyang announced it successfully miniaturized its nuclear warhead," Abe said. "That indicates Pyongyang's readiness to attack the U.S. continent with nuclear weapons. U.S. officials are taking that as a threat to themselves. They may be coming up with a considerably stern attitude."
Abe said he wants to pursue a binding U.N. Security Council resolution that refers to Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter as a way to prevent Pyongyang from further developing its nuclear weapons program.
“Depriving a dictator of cash at his disposal would significantly affect his ability to maintain his regime. Tokyo and Washington's (previous) financial sanctions did deal a blow. I hope authorities and experts in Japan and the United States will start discussing the possibility of (new) financial sanctions that can inflict a certain blow," Abe said.
Another key issue is the Japan-China relationship, which unraveled after Tokyo in September put three of the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea under state ownership.
Chinese government ships have regularly approached and trespassed into Japan's territorial waters around the uninhabited islands, which Beijing calls Diaoyu. Chinese aircraft have also regularly flown near Japan's territorial airspace over the Senkakus, including one intrusion in December.
"Relations with China represent one of our most important bilateral ties," Abe said. "China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, is also an essential presence to the United States as Washington pursues its own policy to defend its national interests. I want to share an accurate understanding (with Obama) of China's actions in the South China Sea and the East China Sea."
He added, "It is important to share the common understanding that the rule of law, not the use of force to change the status quo, should be relied upon to defend free and prosperous seas in the Asia-Pacific region, although I don't necessarily have China in mind in saying this."
Abe also touched on the issue of lifting Japan's self-imposed ban on the right to exercise collective self-defense.
Under the government's current interpretation of the Constitution, Japan possesses the right to collective self-defense but cannot exercise that right, meaning Japan cannot launch a counterattack after an ally is attacked.
Abe has said he wants to change that interpretation.
"It's not that I want Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense to serve the United States," he said. "I am considering (a change) because it is decisively essential to Japan's safety.”
He noted that Aegis ships of the United States and Japan played a role in dealing with the latest missile launch by North Korea, and that it is important to create a link for such efforts.
"Is it permissible that (Japan) gathers information but does not want to act in the face of an impending threat? This issue has to do with how to maintain the Japan-U.S. alliance,” Abe said. “A changing strategic climate in the Asia-Pacific region could lead to a situation where the Japan-U.S. alliance itself can no longer be maintained."
Abe, who has long been known for his nationalistic beliefs, dismissed suggestions that he is currently hiding his hawkish stance for fear of sparking controversy and hurting his party’s chances in the Upper House election in summer.
"I am not concealing 'Abe hues' ahead of the Upper House election," he said. "I did start meetings to create a national security council and to lift the ban on the right to collective self-defense."
PERCEPTION OF HISTORY
In a Feb. 16 interview with The Washington Post that was published on Feb. 21, Abe said he would not modify the government's official view on Japan's wartime actions when he releases a new statement on the issue.
In 1995, the government released a statement in the name of then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. The statement expressed remorse and an apology for Japan's "colonial rule and aggression."
Abe, who has criticized the Murayama statement, has said he wants to replace it with a more "future-oriented" statement.
"Much like my predecessors, I believe that we caused tremendous damage and suffering to the countries of Asia," The Washington Post quoted Abe as saying. "That is why Japan has been providing support and assistance to the countries of Asia even from the days when Japan was still a poor country. ... My basic notion regarding the matter of historical recognition is basically, it's a matter that should be left to the good hands of historians and experts. ... This is a point that I have been making consistently ever since my first term in office."
The U.S. newspaper quoted Abe as saying: "It is my belief that politicians should not be stepping into the realm of history. Rather, politicians should be taking a future-oriented perspective, and that is the perspective from which I intend to issue a statement at the appropriate time.
“I mean to say that Japan should speak about the role Japan should be playing in our relations with Asia."
(This article is based on an interview by Takeshi Soga. Takayuki Hayashi and Naotaka Fujita contributed to this article.)
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