SYDNEY – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to the United States was, from his perspective, hugely successful. The first revision in 18 years of the bilateral defense guidelines was concluded, giving Japan’s Self-Defense Forces an expansive role in providing logistical support to the US. And US President Barack Obama reaffirmed that the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, over which China has attempted to stake its claim, are covered by the mutual-defense treaty. Progress was made on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which needs Japan’s buy-in to succeed. And Abe became the first Japanese leader to address a joint session of Congress.
But, despite this impressive list of achievements, the most striking part of Abe’s trip came at the end. Instead of heading home soon after the official part of his visit was over, Abe headed to California, including Silicon Valley, for four days.
According to official Japanese media reports, Abe visited California to gain inspiration and insights to take back to Tokyo. But the California sojourn also sent a strong message: graceful decline is not Japan’s pre-determined path. Under Abe’s leadership, the country will do what it takes to reinvent itself economically, just as the US has done so many times.
Given the potential of expectations to shape real-world developments, via their impact on strategic and political decisions, this strategy makes sense. Abe knows that he must challenge today’s prevailing narrative that Asia’s economic future belongs to China. If he fails, pressure will mount on the region’s governments to align themselves with China geopolitically, potentially even following its lead in choosing prosperity over freedom.