Why the U.S. and Japan Should Lead in the Pacific

05/04/2015 11:48 am ET | Updated May 04, 2016

At World War II's close in the Pacific, we Japanese, with feelings of deep remorse, embarked on the path of rebuilding and renewing our country. Our predecessors' actions brought great suffering to Asia's peoples, and we must never avert our eyes from that. I uphold the views expressed by Japan's previous prime ministers in this regard.

Given this recognition and remorse, we Japanese have believed for decades that we must do all that we can to contribute to Asia's development. We must spare no effort in working for the region's peace and prosperity.

I am proud of the path that we have taken, but we did not walk that path alone. Seventy years ago, Japan had been reduced to ashes, and each and every month, citizens of the United States sent and brought gifts like milk for our children, warm sweaters and even goats. Yes, 2,036 American goats came to Japan in the years right after the war. Former enemies had become close friends.

And it was Japan that benefited earliest from the postwar international system that the U.S. fostered by opening up its own market and calling for a liberal world economy. From the 1980s onward, we have seen the rise of the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, the ASEAN countries, and, before long, China -- all taking the path of economic development enabled by the open world order created by the U.S.

Japan, to be sure, did not stand idly by; it poured in capital and technologies to support these countries' growth. Both the U.S. and Japan fostered prosperity -- the seedbed for peace -- in the region.

Today, the U.S. and Japan recognize that they must continue to take the lead in fostering a rules-based international economic order -- fair, dynamic, and sustainable -- within which all countries can flourish, free from the arbitrary intentions of any national government.

In the world's great growth center, the Pacific market, we cannot overlook sweatshops or environmental burdens. Nor can we simply allow free riders to weaken intellectual property. Instead, we must spread and nurture our shared values: the rule of law, democracy, and freedom.

"The TPP's strategic value extends far beyond the economic benefits it promises."

That is exactly what the Trans-Pacific Partnership is all about. The TPP's strategic value extends far beyond the economic benefits it promises. It is also about turning an area that accounts for 40 percent of the world economy and one-third of global trade into a region of lasting peace and prosperity for our children and theirs. As for U.S.-Japan negotiations, the goal is near. Let us bring the TPP to a successful conclusion through our joint leadership.

I know how difficult this path has been. Twenty years ago, I myself opposed opening Japan's agricultural market. I even joined farmers' representatives in a rally in front of Japan's Diet.

But Japan's agriculture sector has declined over the last two decades. Our farmers' average age has increased by 10 years, to more than 66. If our agriculture sector is to survive, we must follow through on sweeping reforms, including to our agricultural cooperatives, which have not changed in 60 years.

Change is coming to Japanese business, too. Corporate governance in Japan is now fully in line with global standards because we made it stronger. And I am spearheading regulatory overhauls in such sectors as medicine and energy as well.

Moreover, I am determined to do whatever it takes to reverse the decline in Japan's labor force. We are changing some of our old habits; in particular, we are empowering women to become more actively engaged in all walks of life.

In short, Japan is in the midst of a far-reaching transition to a more open future. We are determined to press ahead with the structural reforms needed to succeed.

But reform requires the continuation of the peace and security that is the bequest of U.S. leadership. My grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, chose the path of democracy and alliance with the U.S. when he was prime minister in the 1950s. Together with the U.S. and other like-minded democracies, we won the Cold War. I intend to stick to that path; indeed, there is no alternative to it.

"Together with the U.S. and other like-minded democracies, we won the Cold War. I intend to stick to that path; indeed, there is no alternative to it."

Our two countries need to make every effort to strengthen our ties. This is why I support America's strategic "rebalancing" to enhance peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan will support this effort first, last, and throughout.

Japan is doing so by deepening its strategic relations with Australia and India, and we are enhancing our cooperation with the ASEAN countries and the Republic of Korea. Adding these partners to the central pillar of the U.S.-Japan alliance will strengthen stability throughout the region. And now Japan will provide up to $2.8 billion dollars to help improve U.S. bases on Guam, which will have even greater strategic significance in the future.

Regarding Asia's ongoing maritime disputes, let me underscore my government's three principles. First, states must stake their territorial claims on the basis of international law. Second, they must not use force or coercion to press their claims. And, third, they must settle all disputes by peaceful means.

We must make the vast seas stretching from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans a zone of peace and freedom, where all adhere to the rule of law. For this reason, too, it is our responsibility to fortify the U.S.-Japan alliance.

That is why we are working hard to enhance the legislative foundations of our security. These enhanced legislative foundations should make cooperation between the U.S. military and Japan's Self-Defense Forces even stronger, and the alliance still more solid, providing credible deterrence in the service of peace in the region.

Once these legal changes -- the most sweeping in our post-war history -- are in place by this summer, Japan will be better able to provide a seamless response for all levels of crisis.

The new Defense Cooperation Guidelines between the U.S. and Japan will serve the same purpose, and help secure peace in the region for years to come.

Finally, Japan is ever more willing to bear its global responsibilities. In the early 1990s, Japan's Self-Defense Forces removed mines in the Persian Gulf. For 10 years in the Indian Ocean, we supported U.S. operations to stop the flow of terrorists and arms. In Cambodia, the Golan Heights, Iraq, Haiti, and South Sudan, members of our Self-Defense Forces provided humanitarian support and participated in peace-keeping operations. Some 50,000 service men and women have participated in those activities thus far.

Japan's agenda is simple and straightforward: reform at home and proactive contributions to global peace based on the principle of international cooperation. It is an agenda that promises to lead Japan -- and Asia -- into a more stable and prosperous future.

This article was adapted from Prime Minister Abe's speech to the U.S. Congress.