American hospitality has been under a lot of strain lately, but there will be quite a different atmosphere when we roll out the welcome mat this week for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Consider these recent visitors to Washington: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was here last month to lecture us on Iran. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited last week to implore us to offer more to a country in which we have already spent $2 trillion and 4,425 American lives. But Abe, who arrives in Washington on Wednesday, will be a rarity: a reliable and consistent ally who comes to honor friendship and cooperation with America rather than lecture us on our policies or harangue us for additional financial and military assistance.
The prime minister’s personal story is compelling. He became Japan’s youngest post-war prime minister in 2006, but lasted only a year partly due to health problems. He had few notable accomplishments, and there was little reason to believe that he would be an important player in Japanese politics. However, during the ensuing five years, he not only doggedly rebuilt support within his party, but also fashioned an audacious set of policies and programs to shake his country out of its economic doldrums, overhaul its national security policies and tackle its demographic and productivity challenges.
He won another term as prime minster in 2012, and has since become one of the most active and determined world leaders. He has also put into action the plans he developed in his “wilderness years,” affecting an extraordinary range of issues.
On the economic front, he launched a three-pronged economic package of monetary measures, fiscal stimulus and structural reform. The result has been a burst of Japanese growth that holds real promise of proving durable over the medium- and long-term. The number of women in the Japanese work force at all levels has increased and the powerful JA-Zenchu agricultural lobby has been reformed and its influence weakened. What’s more, last week Japan overtook China to once again become America’s number-one creditor for the first time since 2008.
Abe has written his country’s first national security strategy, revised the interpretation of its constitution to allow more collaborative defense efforts with the United States and other partners, and increased the country’s defense budget. He has also visited over 50 countries and won a second election by a wide margin.
The success of a longtime ally like Japan is important to the United States in any case, but one of the bedrock principles of Abe’s policies and actions has been his support for the U.S.-Japan relationship. During a time when other friends openly question American steadfastness and treat their relationships with us like an à-la-carte menu—picking and choosing where, when and how they will support us—Japan has deepened its collaboration with the United States across the board. The prime minister has supported our policies even when they cost him in terms of domestic politics, such as moving American bases in Okinawa; or were not in line with Japan’s economic and strategic interests, including support for sanctions against Iran and Russia.
In conjunction with the Prime Minister’s visit, the U.S. and Japan are scheduled to announce the first revision of our bilateral defense guidelines in 18 years, setting a new course for our mutual defense actions in case of crisis or conflict. We are also on the verge of agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a trade deal that will set a new standard for economic relations between the largest and third-largest economies in the world. A U.S.-Japan agreement on TPP will also set the stage for 10 other countries to complete the pact, and open the door to many more, including China, in subsequent rounds of accession. TPP is also a security issue: Defense Secretary Ash Carter said recently, “passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier.”
Other actions by Abe have reopened historical wounds, such as a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine that commemorates convicted war criminals among Japanese war dead. Some equivocal statements about Japan’s actions during its colonial and military era have shown an insensitivity that mars Japan’s hard-earned reputation for contrition and peaceful accomplishments.
However, 70 years after our two countries fought a savage war against one another, we have forged a vitally important and remarkably resilient relationship that is stronger than it has ever been—in large measure due to the efforts of Shinzo Abe. We will each continue to have concerns about certain policies or actions, but the strategic partnership between our countries is vital.
With a friendship like this, perhaps Washington should get Abe a permanent room in town.