Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a clear message for his Washington audience Friday: He intends to restore Japan to a position of strength and leadership in the Pacific.
"I am back!" Abe declared forcefully to the hundreds of experts, officials, and reporters assembled in the basement of the Center for Strategic Studies Friday afternoon. "And Japan is back."
Abe was speaking both about himself, his country, and his party. He served as prime minister once before, for less than a year 2006-7 before resigning, officially for health reasons. He came back to power last December along with his Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan for most of its postwar period, with the exception of the last three years.
Abe said the return of the LDP would mean a more aggressive, more assertive, and more active Japan both in the region and on the world stage.
"Japan is not and will never be a tier-two country. That is the core message I am here to make," he said. "I will get back a strong Japan, strong enough to do even more good for the benefit of the world."
He said his new plan had three planks: keeping Japan as a leading promoter of international rules and norms, continuing Japan's role as "a guardian of the global commons," and increasing Japan's cooperation with democracies in the region such as the United States, South Korea, and Australia.
He promised to increase the budget for the Japanese ministry of defense and pledged to protect Japanese control of the Senkaku islands in the face of increasingly confrontational moves by China, which also claims the islands.
"History and international law both attest that the islands are sovereign Japanese territory," he said. "We simply cannot tolerate challenge now or in the future. No nation should miscalculate about our resolve."
The United States has made clear that the treaty that codifies the U.S.-Japan alliance includes a commitment to protect Japan's administration of the islands, Abe said. He also pledged to avoid escalation of the issue with China if possible.
Abe also vowed to work with the United States to seek a Chapter 7 resolution against North Korea at the United Nations Security Council in response to North Korea's Feb. 11 detonation of a nuclear device.
The CSIS event followed a series of meetings Abe held at the White House, which included a bilateral meeting with President Barack Obama and a working lunch.
"Obviously, Japan is one of our closest allies, and the U.S.-Japan alliance is the central foundation for our regional security and so much of what we do in the Pacific region," Obama said before the meeting.
The two leaders discussed how to form a response to North Korea's provocation and touched on the issues of Afghanistan, Iran, the recent terrorist attack on BP's facility in Algeria, and how to deepen economic cooperation.
After the meeting, Abe said that Obama had agreed that all sticks and no carrots should be used to respond to North Korea's latest belligerence.
"On North Korea, the important thing we discussed, we agreed that it was important for Japan and the United States to not provide rewards to North Korea for their actions such as launching missiles and conducting nuclear tests," Abe said. "That's number one. And number two, we agreed that we would cooperate so that a resolution, including sanctions, would be adopted in the U.N. We also discussed additional sanctions; for example, financial sanctions."
Also present in the oval office on the Japanese side were Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Deputy Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki, Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae, and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, according to a pool report. Those on the U.S. side included Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Assistant Secretary of Defense Mark Lippert, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Deputy NSA Mike Froman, NSC Senior Director for Asia Daniel Russel, and Ambassador to Japan John Roos.
Kerry and Kishida held a follow up meeting at the State Department Friday afternoon.
The trip was largely ceremonial and not much new ground was broken. No real progress was made on bringing Japan into the Trans Pacific Partnership, the Obama administration's main multilateral trade agenda item. Japan wants to exempt its domestic rice industry and the United States continues to emphasize that Japan must first join the talks before negotiating exemptions.
A brief joint statement issued after the meetings reiterated that state of play.
"Recognizing that both countries have bilateral trade sensitivities, such as certain agricultural products for Japan and certain manufactured products for the United States, the two Governments confirm that, as the final outcome will be determined during the negotiations, it is not required to make a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs upon joining the TPP negotiations," the statement read.
For Abe, the visit was a success in that he was able to deliver his plea for closer U.S. ties to a Washington foreign policy community that has been concerned with drift in the alliance over the past few years.
"Keep counting on my country," he said.