Abe's Visit Will Remind Americans China's Power Must Be Checked

04/22/2015 01:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015
KAZUHIRO NOGI via Getty Images

TOKYO -- On April 29, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will address a joint session of the United States Congress. The Japan-U.S. alliance is now 63 years old, but this will be the first time that a Japanese leader will be accorded this high honor from the American government and people.

Abe's visit to the U.S. comes at a time when friction between the two countries is at an all-time low. The trade and economic disputes that incited tensions -- and a sub-genre of paranoid movies about Japan -- in the 1980s, when nine members of Congress even smashed a Toshiba radio with sledgehammers, rarely make an appearance nowadays.

Those past disputes probably explain why former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, though a political soulmate of then-President Ronald Reagan, was never invited to address a joint session of Congress. Today, however, the bilateral relationship is very different. Japan's economic interests are more closely aligned with America's -- the country is poised to join the U.S.-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will create a vast free-trade zone among a dozen Pacific Rim countries -- and the two sides' strategic visions for Asia are in near-harmony.

Moreover, the long-simmering dispute over the U.S. Marine Corps base on Okinawa, which had roiled bilateral relations during the years the Democratic Party of Japan was in power, has been settled amicably, with the U.S. agreeing to move the base to a less populated part of the island. Of course, some Okinawa residents remain opposed to the U.S. base's continued presence on their island, but most Japanese recognize the need for this tangible symbol of their alliance with America, which remains the bedrock of Japan's national security strategy.

The two sides' increasingly similar views on international security issues as well, particularly where China is concerned, no doubt also contributed to the decision by the U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama's administration to honor Abe. Both Abe and Obama are focused on creating a durable structure of peace for all of Asia, and Abe has been eager for Japan to play a more active role in this regard, and in supporting its allies. That stance is making the alliance much more a partnership of equals than it has been for the last six decades.

In America's view, the reinterpretation of Article 9 of Japan's "peace constitution" that Abe undertook -- thereby allowing Japan's self-defense forces to aid allies under attack and to assist the U.S. and other allies in meeting their commitments to securing Asia's peace -- was long overdue. That bold policy initiative -- in the face of the Japanese public's deeply ingrained skepticism toward any increased exposure to military risks -- has no doubt endeared Abe to U.S. diplomats and military strategists, as well as secured both open and sometimes tacit approval from Japan's Asian neighbors.

Increased military cooperation with the U.S. is particularly important now, given American worries about many of its other strategic partners' readiness. Even the United Kingdom, long seen as America's closest ally, now seems intent on undermining its ability to work cooperatively with the U.S. in times of crisis, even in meeting its NATO commitments, because of severe cuts to its military budget. Other allies are also increasingly regarded in the U.S. as free riders on America's military might.

Abe's commitment to the rules and institutions of the post-1945 world order, which helped bring Japan out of the ruins of World War II and has allowed China to rise so peacefully, gives the U.S. another reason to honor him. Like the U.S., Japan has many concerns about the parallel institutions -- including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS countries' New Development Bank -- that China is creating.

Having benefited so much from the post-war global order, most Japanese share Abe's view that China's efforts to replace it with one more to its liking is both unwise and dangerous for Asia. Indeed, countries that have decided to cooperate with China in creating rival multilateral institutions should ask themselves a simple question: Would a world order designed by China allow for the rise of another power to challenge it in the way the U.S.-led world order allowed for -- indeed, encouraged and assisted -- China's three-decade-long boom?

To answer that question, one can look to the writings of the Chinese strategist Yan Xuetong, whose book "Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power" argues that all countries must recognize and accept China's centrality to the world as the Middle Kingdom. Moreover, China has thus far shown little interest in discussing the standards by which the multilateral institutions it has launched will be governed -- or, indeed, the extent to which they will be truly multilateral.

Abe's visit to the U.S. thus comes at a moment of clarity in bilateral relations. Both countries seek to create a viable structure of peace for Asia, one that allows China to continue to grow and prosper, but that prevents any one country from claiming hegemony. And both favor a rules-based Asian trading order that reinforces the global norms that have served the world so well since WWII's end. In honoring Abe with an address to Congress, the U.S. is really honoring the values and vision that both countries share.