On the surface, Barack Obama’s recent Japan visit struck all the right chords for Tokyo. For the first time ever, an American president stated that the U.S.-Japan security treaty extends to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute, the most combustible geopolitical conflict between Japan and China. And Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a “key milestone” for negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade deal that encompasses 12 countries and more than 40 percent of the world’s economic output.
But there was less to the visit than meets the eye. Obama’s Senkaku pledge was a restatement of existing U.S. policy. The “key milestone” on TPP was never identified; in fact, it seems that the 40 hours of bilateral discussions between the U.S. and Japan led to no breakthrough at all. And while the trip was a big win for Obama — he managed to placate Tokyo without provoking Beijing — it didn’t offer any solutions for how Japan should deal with a rising China.
With the United States disengaging on foreign policy and China rapidly expanding its influence, Japan is caught in a dire geopolitical position. But Tokyo still has options. Here are five foreign policy priorities for Japan.
1. Stay the course on Abenomics.
Japan’s first priority must be to follow through on the prime minister’s economic plan. Despite Tokyo’s recent fixation on security issues, it has maintained economic momentum — and must continue to do so.
Improving its long-term economic trajectory is the single most important initiative for Japan. It makes Tokyo more attractive as a partner, and gives Japan opportunities to influence regional outcomes with its wallet. Tokyo cannot take its eyes off the ball to deal with geopolitical concerns. Pressing ahead with Abenomics is the most valuable use of Abe’s political capital.