Concurrent crises on nearly every continent continue to buffet the Obama administration and will likely challenge the next president. But some special relationships with key allies endure and are even growing stronger. Such is the case with Japan, whose prime minister, Shinzo Abe, addressed a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.
The U.S.-Japan relationship, Abe said, is “an alliance of hope.” That isn’t just rhetoric: The bilateral relationship between the two democracies is a pillar of U.S. foreign policy and an anchor in a region dealing with the rapid rise of China. The alliance was strengthened this week when defense and diplomatic leaders from America and Japan jointly announced revised Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation. The new accord would in effect allow Japanese forces to go beyond postwar self-defense limits and intervene if the U.S., or forces the U.S. military is defending, are threatened. This is particularly important as tensions rise over China’s assertive territorial claims in the South China Sea and as a nuclear-armed North Korea continues to destabilize the region.
Economic growth is also important for each country’s security, and the U.S. and Japan, as well as 10 other Pacific nations, stand to gain from dynamic free trade. In fact, the strategic value of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement is “awesome,” Abe told Congress. Abe and President Obama, a strong TPP supporter despite the reticence of many congressional Democrats, signaled progress in the negotiations. Congress could provide an essential assist by approving Trade Promotion Authority, which would allow ample time to analyze the pact before an eventual up-or-down vote.
Passing TPP — and advancing defense ties — would be concrete accomplishments of Obama’s pivot to Asia. A revitalized U.S. presence in the region is a goal shared by several Asian nations, and it could be bolstered if Tokyo were to better reckon with its wartime past. This week Abe expressed “deep remorse” and “eternal condolences,” but a more assertive apology on issues like the comfort women sexual slaves and other wartime wrongdoing would help overcome these history issues and better allow Japan, the U.S. and other countries to turn toward the future.