Japan's Shinzo Abe visits U.S. to discuss new threat: China

U.S. restricted Japan's military after WWII. Will Washington reverse that policy as China rises?

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rises to address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, it will represent a diplomatic sea change so great that it may seem incomprehensible to the lingering members of the "Greatest Generation."

To those who lived through World War II, Japan was once seen as such a menacing enemy that upon the emperor's surrender in 1945, America imposed a severely pacifist constitution to ensure that the Asian nation would never again become a world power.

Today, that world has turned upside down. And the U.S. and Japan are finding it necessary to draw even closer to confront a shared threat.

China, a battered and enfeebled American ally during the war, has become a juggernaut that increasingly asserts its economic and military power across Asia and beyond.

Consequently, Abe's unprecedented speech to Congress is expected to focus on the once-unimaginable idea of increasing Japan's military strength with an eye toward putting muscle behind the two countries' vision of an American-led order in Asia.

The 60-year-old prime minister will also urge support for a Pacific Rim free-trade deal led by the U.S. and Japan, the world's No. 1 and No. 3 economies, respectively. The 12-nation pact, which would bring together a number of China's large trading partners but not China, is seen as a form of economic containment aimed at the world's No. 2 economy.

Though the trade deal faces stiff resistance from America's trade unions and many Democratic lawmakers, the Republican-led Congress is moving to give President Obama greater power to resolve final sticking points with Japan. Administration officials said Friday that "substantial progress" has been made in negotiations, but that there won't be an agreement announced on the Trans-Pacific Partnership during Abe's visit.

At the center of the trip will be the first speech by a Japanese prime minister to a joint session of Congress. Abe's weeklong visit also includes a meeting with Obama and stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where Abe studied public policy at USC.

Timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Abe's trip will no doubt rekindle painful memories for some Americans and key allies.

Abe is expected to address Japan's history of military aggressions, a particularly sensitive subject for Beijing and Seoul.

Chinese and South Koreans have repeatedly criticized Japan for what they see as a glossing-over of wartime atrocities in Japanese textbooks, the honoring of war criminals at Japanese military shrines and the failure to adequately compensate so-called comfort women from Korea, China and other Asian countries forced into sexual servitude for Japanese troops.

Foreshadowing what he might say on his visit, Abe expressed "feelings of deep remorse over the past war" at a conference in Bandung, Indonesia, last week.

Korean American civic groups and others that oppose the congressional invitation to Abe will want to hear much more than that, and are planning protests on both coasts. But eager to focus on the future alliance, U.S. officials are not expected to dwell on the issue.

"As long as he says something regarding the past that seems sincere and contrite, people will take that and say it's enough," said Jeffrey Kingston, a professor of Asian studies and history at Temple University's Japan Campus. "Chinese and Koreans will be scrutinizing every comma, dot and word. He knows no matter what he says, he can't satisfy them. What he wants to do is say enough to satisfy Washington. And the mood coming out of Washington is quite positive."

To understand why, it helps to consider another Asian leader's speech last week to a different foreign legislature.

On a high-profile visit to Islamabad, Pakistan, Chinese President Xi Jinping was welcomed by the Pakistani parliament, touting growing joint anti-terrorism efforts and pledging $46 billion worth of energy and infrastructure projects, a sum that would eclipse Washington's spending on its strategic ally over the last 10 years.

The development package is part of a fundamental shift in Beijing's foreign policy, with Xi using massive economic carrots backed by increasingly muscular military assets to assert Chinese leadership in Asia.

Beijing has unveiled an ambitious "Silk Road" effort to forge land and sea links to Middle Eastern and European markets, estimating it will invest $1.25 trillion abroad by 2025. It has recruited more than 50 countries to establish an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The bank would compete with the U.S.-led World Bank.

This winter, China even inked a free-trade agreement with key U.S. ally South Korea.

At the same time, China is engaging in extensive land reclamation projects on contested islets and reefs in the South China Sea, deploying submarines to the Indian Ocean, and expanding air and ship patrols near Japanese-administered islets and into the Western Pacific.

"China is serious about ousting the U.S. as the preeminent regional power in Asia," said Tom Miller, senior Asia analyst at the financial research firm Gavekal Dragonomics.

"It's going to use its economic muscle to do that, but it's going to be backed up by a stronger navy, a stronger military, and it is determined to use its economic leverage to political ends if it needs to."

That's a source of growing alarm to Japan and the U.S., which are expected to use Abe's visit to announce revised joint defense guidelines.

Although the U.S. still has the primary combat role, the new guidelines integrate Japanese personnel closer to the front and give Japan a more central mission in military intelligence, missile defense, logistics support and cyber warfare, said James Schoff, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Japan's goal is to tighten the defense alliance "and to strengthen deterrence regarding China," Schoff said.

Key for Abe during his visit, his second to Washington since 2012, is demonstrating closer defense ties with the United States.

"What Abe wants is some statement of the United States' commitment to defend Japan," said June Teufel Dreyer, an Asia-Pacific security expert at the University of Miami. "We have said we would defend Japan against outside attack. But what is happening now in the South China Sea and East China Sea is not an attack, is it? It's encroachment."

China's increasing patrols near a set of uninhabited islands, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China, have put Tokyo in a tight spot.

"Is Washington willing to take an extra step?" Dreyer asked. "They are talking now about a United States commitment to defend 'remote islands,' [but] what's a remote island? … If you are Japan, you want clarification on that, and if you're the U.S., you're not sure you want to give clarification on that. And each side is quite afraid of making China angry."

Lee reported from Washington and Makinen from Beijing. Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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