Shinzo Abe’s visit Tuesday to Pearl Harbor is a symbol of reconciliation, and the Japanese Prime Minister’s gesture was made especially dramatic by the stakes of U.S.-Japan relations today. Seventy-five years after Pearl Harbor, as North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and China’s revisionist ambitions threaten the Pacific, Japan is America’s most important security partner.
Of the five U.S. treaty allies in the Asia-Pacific, Japan has by far the largest economy, the most capable military and the most strategic-minded political leadership. By going to Pearl Harbor, Mr. Abe is able to bookend President Obama’s recent visit to Hiroshima and highlight Japan’s value to Donald Trump, who as a candidate sometimes talked as if Japan is a free-rider on U.S. security guarantees. The Japanese leader knows he has a good story to tell.
Since taking office in 2012 Mr. Abe has steadily strengthened Japan’s ability to defend itself and help the U.S. advance shared interests. Last year he braved raucous street protests and tussles on the Diet floor to deliver a constitutional reinterpretation allowing Japan to engage in “collective self-defense.” This means the Japanese military can use force to protect the U.S. and other friendly nations from attack, even if Japan itself isn’t targeted.
Thus it’s no longer true that Japan could “sit home and watch Sony television” if the U.S. were attacked, as Mr. Trump charged on the campaign trail. Japanese forces can now shoot down North Korean missiles heading for U.S. targets. Japan’s navy, which is larger than Britain’s, now backs up any U.S. ship that may face Chinese mischief in Asian waters.
Japan still spends too little on defense—about 1% of gross domestic product, as it has for decades—but Mr. Abe has delivered five straight annual increases after a decade of declines. The 1.4% increase announced last week, to a record 5.1 trillion yen ($44 billion), will fund new missile defenses developed with the U.S. and help Japan meet its goal of fielding 22 submarines by 2021, from 17 today. Tokyo also increased its separate coast guard budget by 12%, to nearly $2 billion.
Tokyo spends another $1.7 billion annually on the 54,000 U.S. troops based in Japan. That’s about half the local cost, and it would cost the U.S. more to bring the troops home. Then there’s the nearly $18 billion Tokyo has committed toward some of the largest U.S. military construction projects in the Pacific, including new facilities in southern Japan (near the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan), and even on the U.S. island of Guam.
Augmenting all this is Mr. Abe’s energetic regional diplomacy. His friendship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has deepened strategic ties between Asia’s strongest democratic powers. His agreement to settle World War II disputes with South Korea paved the way for unprecedented cooperation among the U.S., Japan and South Korea on missile defense and other issues. His outreach to Southeast Asia has aided economic and military modernization in states vulnerable to Chinese coercion, and he even maintains good relations with firebrand Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte.
There’s more, from Mr. Abe’s affection for Taiwan to his willingness to open Japan’s long-protected industries to foreign competition. Wherever the U.S. has strategic goals in Asia, Japan is increasingly willing and able to help.
Kudos to Mr. Abe for highlighting this in dramatic fashion, as with last year’s address to Congress and now at Pearl Harbor. The apparent warmth of his meeting with President-elect Trump last month was an encouraging sign for peace and prosperity in Asia.