Security Likely On Agenda Of U.S., Japan Meeting

Japan's new Prime Minster Shinzo Abe will meet with President Obama on Friday. Security issues are likely to be high on the agenda; Japan's relations with China are at a low point because of their confrontation over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

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Security issues will be on the agenda tomorrow when President Obama and Japan's new prime minister meet for the first time. Japan and China are in a dispute over islands in the East China Sea. The U.S. is standing by its long held commitment to Japan's defense. And North Korea's recent nuclear tests and missile launches have also focused attention on the U.S.-Japan security agreement.

Lucy Craft reports from Tokyo.

PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: (Foreign language spoken)

LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: Just before boarding a government jet to Washington, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters his mission was to shore up the U.S.-Japan alliance. The alliance is undergirded by a security treaty dating back to 1960, a document that has critics on both sides of the Pacific. Some Japanese say they'd be better off with an independent defense policy, while the asymmetric aspect of the alliance, which requires the U.S. to defend Japan but not the other way around, has drawn detractors on the U.S. side.

But political analyst Michael Cucek argues the alliance has been an unalloyed success for both parties.

MICHAEL CUCEK: These assets that Japan brings to the relationship are priceless. There is no way that the United States can replace them with its own spending and its own people.

CRAFT: Cucek says shielded by the U.S. defense umbrella, Japan has become rich and powerful while spending relatively little on its defense, while the U.S. has enjoyed access to bases and cooperation with the Japanese military.

CUCEK: So it is vital for the United States to understand that even if the security treaty seems unfair and asymmetric, nevertheless, the benefits that have accrued from it and will accrue from it are something that the United States doesn't have to pay a yen for.

CRAFT: Even so, many in Washington have been arguing for more than a decade that it's time the U.S.-Japan alliance get an upgrade. Akin to America's defense relationship with the U.K., they would convert Japan's junior-partner status to more of a partnership of equals, with a more active role for Japan. The need is particularly acute now that North Korea has conducted its third nuclear test, and China and Japan are locked in a territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea.

That would suit former diplomat Hisahiko Okazaki, who says Japan has been rendered a helplessly pacifist country by its antiwar constitution. He's frustrated by Japan's prohibition on collective defense, which he says is particularly dangerous as North Korea perfects its long-range missiles.

HISAHIKO OKAZAKI: And if they shoot Guam or Honolulu, they have to fly over Japan. At this moment, Japan cannot shoot it down. But if we modify our interpretation, we can shoot it down if it's directed to an ally. That's a big benefit.

CRAFT: Since President Obama took office back in 2009, Japan has had five prime ministers. The current chief, Shinzo Abe, himself was a one-year wonder back in 2007. But Abe seeks to show that Japan has a steady hand at the wheel at last. The 58-year-old leader is riding a wave of popularity for his aggressive growth-boosting policy. If he can win control of the upper house, he could stay in power throughout Obama's term and perhaps push through a change in Japan's defense policy. That would help convince skeptics that Japan remains a major player in maintaining the balance of power in Asia.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

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