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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Preview of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Visit to Pearl Harbor

Daniel Kritenbrink, National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
December 21, 2016


MODERATOR: All right. Welcome to the Foreign Press Center. Thank you for joining today. I’m Mark Zimmer. I’m one of the media relations officers here. We’re very pleased to have with us Daniel Kritenbrink, who is the senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council. He’ll brief us on the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Abe to Hawaii and his meeting with President Obama. He will make an opening statement. I’ll moderate a Q&A as usual. We don’t have our colleagues in New York with us today, so the questions will be in this room.

Thank you for joining us. Welcome, Mr. Kritenbrink.

MR KRITENBRINK: Thank you. All right. Good afternoon, everyone. How’s everyone today? It’s always nice to come over to the Foreign Press Center, so I appreciate your joining us here today, and it’s my pleasure to discuss the upcoming meeting between Prime Minister – between President Obama and Prime Minister Abe.

As we announced earlier this month, President Obama is pleased to welcome Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Hawaii on December 26-27. On the morning of December 27, the President and the prime minister will hold a bilateral meeting. At that meeting, the two leaders will have an opportunity to review their joint efforts over the past four years to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance as well as our close cooperation and partnership during that time on a range of security, economic, and global challenges.

Following their meeting, President Obama and Prime Minister Abe will visit the USS Arizona Memorial together to honor the men and women killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The two leaders will also provide brief remarks to the press and an assembled audience.

We think the December 27 meeting between the President and the prime minister will be a further demonstration of the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Simply put, the alliance has never been stronger. From the beginning of his Administration, President Obama has made clear that our alliance relationships remain the cornerstone of our Asia strategy and that the U.S.-Japan alliance is at the center of our network of allies and partners in the Asia Pacific.

We therefore believe it is fitting that just as then-Prime Minister Aso was the first foreign leader that President Obama hosted at the White House in February 2009, that now-Prime Minister Abe will likely be the last foreign leader with whom the President will meet during his presidency.

Since 2009, and of course, over the past four years together with Prime Minister Abe, the United States and Japan have taken a number of steps to further bolster our alliance. That has included our conclusion in 2015 of the new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines that enable our two militaries to plan, train, and operate even more closely. We’ve also taken steps related to Japan’s hosting of our forward-deployed military forces that have allowed us to reduce the impact of those forces on local communities while enabling them to continue their vital contribution to the security of both Japan and the region.

The United States and Japan have also worked closely bilaterally and increasingly trilaterally with South Korea to deter and counter the threat from North Korea. And our two countries have increased our cooperation on a host of other regional and global issues, from upholding bedrock international principles, such as the freedom of navigation, to making important contributions to Afghanistan’s stabilization and reconstruction, as well as the fight against ISIL.

Together, we have also provided humanitarian assistance and disaster relief around the region and around the globe. We’ve conducted counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. And Japan continues to be an important contributor to global peacekeeping operations, both in terms of financial support and personnel. Japan is a vitally important economic partner as well, of course, given our work together to promote stable economic growth, including in the G7 and at APEC, and as demonstrated by Japan’s passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement earlier this month.

As always, our two countries remain united in our shared values and principles, including freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. These shared values not only help to bind our two countries and peoples together; they’ve supported our cooperation to uphold those values and the institutions that support them around the world.

So, again, when the two leaders meet on December 27, I am confident that the President and the prime minister will have the chance to review and to celebrate all that our two countries have accomplished on these issues over the past several years. But of course, as I noted earlier, the two leaders’ joint visit to Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial is of great historical significance. It will provide them an opportunity to pay their respects to those who were killed on December 7, 1941, while also highlighting the power of reconciliation that has moved the United States and Japan from adversaries to the closest of allies. In fact, the visit to Pearl Harbor will mark just how far we have come in our alliance with Japan not just since World War II, but also over the course of the Obama Administration.

Although I’ve stated here today that the United States and Japan have been allies for decades and we have enjoyed tremendously strong and interdependent relations based on political, economic, social, cultural, and people-to-people ties, I nonetheless believe that this visit and the President’s visit to Hiroshima earlier this year would not have been possible eight years ago. That we are here today is the result of years of efforts at all levels of our government and societies, which has allowed us to jointly and directly deal with even the most sensitive aspects of our shared history.

So the visit to Pearl Harbor by President Obama and Prime Minister Abe truly will symbolize how far the United States and Japan have progressed in building a deep and abiding alliance based on mutual interests, shared values, and an enduring spirit of friendship between our two peoples.

With that, I’m happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR: All right. We’ll do a Q&A. Please identify yourselves and your outlet as you ask your question. Let’s start with Tatsuya, please.

MR KRITENBRINK: How are you? Nice to see you, my friend. (Laughter.) Please, you get the first shot.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Tatsuya Mizumoto from Jiji Press. I have two question. Are you going to invite some veterans of World War II to Honolulu? And then what kind of message the President going to deliver in the ceremony? Thank you.

MR KRITENBRINK: Well, thank you for those questions. Let me start – let me take the first one: Yes, we are. I do not have with me here today and I do not believe that we have determined with 100 percent certainty exactly who will be at the ceremony, but yes, the United States will invite a number of people to attend the ceremony to witness the remarks that both the prime minister and the President will give. And some of the invitees, for example, include important political leaders in Hawaii, of course – the Hawaii congressional delegation, the governor, and others. I think you can expect that representatives of the U.S. military and others will be present. But of course, we are inviting a number of veterans, survivors, representatives of veteran service organizations, and the like. We hope that many of them will be able to attend. And I think that their attendance, similar to the presence of the hibakusha at Hiroshima, I think could truly be very powerful, and we anticipate that it will be.

Their presence is related to your second question: What is the message that the President intends to convey? I think the message that the President intends to convey is what I’ve tried to describe here today. This event is both a demonstration of the strength of our alliance and everything that the United States and Japan do today for the benefit of our peoples, the region, and the world. It’s also a powerful demonstration of how two countries can overcome a very painful history to become the closest of allies and friends. That focus on the power of reconciliation I think will be a key thing in the President’s remarks, and I also anticipate, based on what I have heard from my Japanese counterparts and what I have read about the prime minister’s own comments, that I think our Japanese allies and partners are approaching this event from a similar perspective.

MODERATOR: Okay. Let’s go in the corner, please. Thank you.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this.


QUESTION: Hi. This is Yukiko Toyoda from Kyodo News.

MR KRITENBRINK: Nice to see you.

QUESTION: I have a question and it’s very nice to see you again.

MR KRITENBRINK: Hey, it’s great to see you.

QUESTION: Yes. My first question is: Will you plan to have a press conference – joint press conference or issue a joint statement after the bilateral meetings? And also, how do you refer to the continuation – the rebalance policy? The TPP, for example, under which – the pillar policy in – economically to support the rebalance seem to be into the gridlock with the Congress, and President-elect Trump kind of expressed his kind of opposition to push forward that treaty. So how will two leaders refer to the continuation of the rebalance policy and give their reflection on that, including TPP?

MR KRITENBRINK: Thank you. Those are good questions. On the issue of whether or not there will be a press conference, I think what I can say right now is I am not aware of plans for – currently for a press conference by the President. But I’m not in a position really to comment on what other press arrangements may be made at the time or what other officials may or may not be available to answer questions. What I am confident is that when the two leaders meet in their bilateral meeting, I anticipate that there would be some kind of an opportunity at least for photos to be taken of that meeting. Then, of course, when the leaders visit the memorial, I’m sure that will be captured for the world media to see. And then, of course, my understanding is they will then move to a nearby site to make their remarks in front of the press and assembled audience, and beyond that, I’m happy to take your question back and find out what other press opportunities might be available.

On the question of the rebalance and the TPP, I think this is what I would say: The United States has made clear over the last eight years that we are an Asia Pacific power, as we have been for decades, for more than a century. Our interests in the region are longstanding and enduring, and that will not change overnight. That being said, I think one of the greatest hallmarks of our democratic tradition in the United States is the peaceful transfer of power and the ability of duly elected leaders – leader of the United States to determine his or her specific policies on a range of issues. So I’m not going to speak to or speculate precisely what may or may not happen in the future and I will leave that to the president-elect and his team to speak to in detail.

What I can say is, again, clearly, from the first day of his Administration and even before inauguration, President Obama made clear that he intended to increase the time, attention, and resources that we devote – devoted to the Asia Pacific. Based on the very clear trend lines in Asia, tremendous economic growth, the presence of more than five U.S. treaty allies in the region, great promise clearly is present across the region and great challenges as well. And I think that we can point to a number of successes.

I think as our alliance with Japan, I think, is as strong as it’s ever been, I think we’ve also strengthened our other treaty allies in the region – treaty alliances in the region. We have forged new partnerships with countries in the region. I think Burma is a shining example of that. We’ve taken our partnership with Vietnam to a new level. We’ve further deepened other partners – other partnerships in the region with key countries like Singapore. I think we’ve seen a dramatic expansion in our trade relations with the region as Asia rises and the United States and other parts of the world benefit from that. We’ve worked increasingly closely with allies like Japan and other partners across the region to tackle global issues as well. We’ve also invested deeply in the institutions of the region, first and foremost ASEAN and the East Asia Summit.

So I think there are many successes that we can point to under the rebalance strategy. Again, I think the rebalance, just to reiterate, from the beginning was undergirded by these longstanding and enduring American interests. I hope that answers your question.

MODERATOR: Let’s go here in the black, please.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. Anatoly Bochinin with TASS news agency of Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin just visited Japan. He had a meeting with Prime Minister Abe.

MR KRITENBRINK: Yes, he did.

QUESTION: Yes. So my – in this case, my question is: What’s your assessment of this meeting, of these talks between two leaders? What’s your general assessment of enduring – improving relationships between Russia and Japan? Because previously, State Department said that now it’s not the time to have a business as usual with Russia. Thank you.

MR KRITENBRINK: Well, thank you for your question. I would say a couple of things. First of all, I’d refer you to Tokyo and Moscow for their assessment of how the visit went. As you might imagine, we’ve consulted particularly closely with our Japanese allies on a range of issues, including our respective approach to Russia. I can speak with confidence that I think there’s a great deal of unanimity within the G7, including the United States and Japan, that we have fundamental concerns with certain actions taken by Russia, including its aggression in eastern Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea. The sanctions that were put in place on Russia after those actions remain in place. They send a clear signal of unity that we will not return to business as usual until Russia fully complies with its Minsk commitments.

QUESTION: And will the President raise this issue with Prime Minister Abe?

MR KRITENBRINK: Well, it would be unwise of me to speculate exactly what they may or may not discuss. I think what I would say is this: Anytime the leaders of the United States and Japan get together, they have important business to conduct. But I think given the nature of this meeting, given the historical importance of this meeting, and given the timing of this meeting, I think a good deal of time will be spent reviewing and, as I mentioned, celebrating the achievements that our two countries have been able to enjoy over the last eight and particularly the last four years. I think that’s where the bulk of their time will be spent. Again, given the importance of our two countries and our global interest, it wouldn't surprise me if other pressing issues are discussed, but I wouldn't care to speculate on whether or not that specific issue would be raised.

MODERATOR: Okay, let’s go to Elliot in the middle, please. Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Elliot –

MR KRITENBRINK: How are you?

QUESTION: Good, thank you. Elliot Waldman with the Tokyo Broadcasting System. A couple of questions if I may. One, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the lead-up to this visit by Prime Minister Abe to Pearl Harbor without getting too much into the specifics of private conversations or whatnot.


QUESTION: A little bit about when the decision was made, how it was made, that would be really nice. Thank you. And then one more on the transition. I was wondering if you’ve had a chance to meet with anyone from the transition team on the – from Trump’s – President-elect Trump’s national security team, and if so, what message you conveyed in that meeting. Thank you very much.

MR KRITENBRINK: Well, thank you. Those are good questions. Here’s what I would say about the lead-up to the decision to conduct this meeting and visit to Pearl Harbor. At the APEC meetings in Lima, we were pleased that the President and the prime minister had a chance to conduct a brief pull-aside, and it was there that they made the decision and came to an agreement to go forward with this visit. I think the best place to go for a more detailed recounting of some of the thinking behind our approach to Pearl Harbor, I’d commend to you the interview of Ben Rhodes that was done by our friends at the Asahi Shimbun. It’s a pretty detailed interview. But I think the key messages that Ben conveyed there and that I want to reiterate here are that when the President visited Hiroshima earlier this year in May, that was a decision that the President made on its merits. And the President made clear that he wanted to and was committed to visiting Hiroshima full stop because he thought it was in our interest to do so both for the message of reconciliation that it sent, for the message it sent about squarely facing history and addressing it head on, and also to further his objective to pursue a world without nuclear weapons. And I think for those of you who were there, who saw that event, I think you would see it was truly a moving and historic event. That was a standalone decision. It was not linked to what will take place at Pearl Harbor. But we are equally as pleased that we subsequently made a decision to carry out this visit I anticipate will be equally as powerful. And again, it really demonstrates the miracle and the power of reconciliation that’s taken place between our two countries in really just 70 short years.

On your second question about the transition, I would say that, yes, there have been meetings taking place between the president-elect’s transition team and current members of the Administration at a variety of levels. I think it would probably not be appropriate to talk about the details and what messages may or may not have been conveyed. But I think our friends in the United States and across the region can rest assured that the transition is proceeding smoothly. I think members of the current Administration will continue to have opportunities to convey important information on the critical issues that we face, lessons learned. And then on January 20 and beyond, it will be the president-elect and his team that will have the opportunity to take responsibility for those issues.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to the front, please, in the blue jacket.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing the press conference.

MR KRITENBRINK: My pleasure.

QUESTION: Shinichiro Nishida with the Mainichi newspapers. I’d like to inquire whom will you invite? And in the context of reconciliation, I was wondering if you could tell me whether you will invite former POWs.

MR KRITENBRINK: So I’ll reiterate what I said earlier. I don’t have with me here today what the invitation list looks like, and I think right now we’re in the midst of inviting various people. So I don’t think we’re even in a position to know for certainly exactly who will be there. But again, we’re looking for a broad cross-section of people who both play an important role in U.S.-Japan relations, who have played an important role in the reconciliation that’s taken place between our two countries. So that will include government officials, local representatives. I think you can anticipate there would be people who would be involved in the Japan-America Societies and the like.

But we do think it’s important to have veterans – veterans service organizations and survivors there. I do know that we have invited at a minimum some organizations who are charged with assisting and representing former POWs. I do not know at this point whether any former POWs will be present, and I don’t know if my colleagues have that information, but my guess is that we’ll know better when we get closer to the event.

But let me just again underscore the purpose of the event. The purpose of the event primarily is to honor those who were killed that day, made the ultimate sacrifice. I’m confident that the President will also speak to what we consider the greatest generation and the sacrifices that they made. But equally as important, as I’ve reiterated several times, we’re focused on reconciliation and I’m confident that will be the overriding theme of the event.

I know that speaking personally, I thought one of the most powerful aspects of President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima was the moment that he was able to meet with the hibakusha after his remarks and the remarks of the prime minister. And so I’m hopeful that perhaps there can be some similar interaction in Hawaii between our leaders of today and those who survived the events from 1941. But at this point we don’t know the precise details, who may or may not be present.

MODERATOR: Okay, let’s go to the red – in the red please, in the middle. Thank you.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Tara McKelvey with the BBC.


QUESTION: I know people hate two-part questions, so I’ll try to make this simple.

MR KRITENBRINK: Please, lay it on me.

QUESTION: If you could tell us please any logistical details. We’ve been struggling with the time zones in our planning for this event in Pearl Harbor. So you said there’s a morning bilat and then they’re going to go to the memorial. That would be really helpful. And then also, I know you talked about the transition but you also talked with a lot of pride about your accomplishments, and I’m wondering how you’re hoping to keep those accomplishments in place with the next administration, what your conversations are like with the transition team, how their – your ideas are being received, and so on.

MR KRITENBRINK: I think I’m the wrong person to give you the logistical details, and I’m confident that those will be made clear closer to the event. I’m also confident that not every last single detail has been determined with 100 percent certainty. So I would simply say stay tuned, but the rough outline that I’ve tried to give you is a bilateral meeting in the morning followed by a visit to the memorial, followed by remarks.

On the transition, again, I’ll underscore I think it’s the hallmark of our democracy – it’s the peaceful transition of power. I know that from the President on down, he has emphasized that it is our professional and patriotic duty to carry out the smoothest, most effective transition possible so that the new leadership can take over the reins of government and continue to advance our national interests and succeed, which is in our country’s interest. As part of that transition, there are regular conversations that take place in which, whether they be political appointees or career civil servants, we are having an opportunity to convey what we think worked, the remaining challenges, which of those are urgent, which are more long-term, what opportunities exist, and the like. And that’s our responsibility I think every time we have a transfer of power. That’s what’s happening now. I’m confident it will continue to go forward smoothly and professionally, and then the president-elect and his team, when they take over, will have a chance to make clear precisely the policies they intend to implement.


MODERATOR: Let’s go in the back please.

QUESTION: Thanks. Jiafei Lu from China Xinhua. I was wondering when the State Department met with Mr. Trump’s transition team, did the State Department bring up the issue of Mr. Trump’s use of Twitter?

MR KRITENBRINK: Well, I would say a couple of things. One, I don’t know. Although I am a State Department Foreign Service officer, I’m detailed to the National Security Council; that’s where I work, that’s where I spend my days and nights, and so I’m not familiar with the details of what conversations have taken place between the State Department transition team and the president-elect’s team. I know those conversations are ongoing but I’m not familiar with the details.

MODERATOR: Let’s go on the far side please, on the second row.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Nazira Azim Karimi, I am a correspondent for Ariana Television Network from Afghanistan, and I am from Afghanistan.

MR KRITENBRINK: Nice to see you.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. As you mentioned about Afghanistan, I would like to ask Japan’s – the government’s work towards Afghanistan. It means a long-term commitment (inaudible) Japan’s toward Afghanistan and different (inaudible)? Thank you.

MR KRITENBRINK: So your question is whether Japan’s commitment is for the long term?

QUESTION: Yes. Yes, for how long Japan will committed to work with Afghanistan.

MR KRITENBRINK: Well, here’s what I would say. I would say that if you want the specific views of the Japanese Government on their commitment to Afghanistan, I’d have to ask you to ask directly a representative of the Japanese Government. What I can say with confidence, though, is that we are grateful for the close cooperation that the United States and Japan have had on Afghanistan. We’re grateful for the fact that Japan is the largest cash contributor after the United States to Afghanistan’s stabilization, reconstruction, and development, and that Japan has provided since 2001 more than $5.5 billion in assistance. In July 2012, Japan hosted the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan and announced it would provide up to some $3 billion of assistance in about five years from 2012. And as of February of last year, a total of $2.17 billion had been disbursed. In July of this year, Japan agreed to extend its current pledge of $130 million annually.

So again, I would encourage you to ask our friends in the Japanese Government for their views on their approach. The point that I wanted to make here today and I want to make right now is that we are grateful for the fact that allies and partners like Japan understand that their interests are served by promoting peace and stability around the globe, including in regions not directly on Japan’s periphery. I think it’s a sign of the power of our alliance and I think it’s a sign of the fact of strategic thinking in Tokyo that it’s helped our two countries work together on issues in places like Afghanistan, also in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

MODERATOR: All right, let’s take a final question in the front row here please.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Kritenbrink. My name is Taketsugu Sato with The Asahi Shimbun. As you mentioned reconciliation, in terms of reconciliation now on historical issue, how has Obama Administration been trying to outline diplomatic approach toward not only Japan but also Asian countries? Thank you.

MR KRITENBRINK: Not just to Japan, but to other Asian countries? Look, I think if you look at the work of this Administration over the last eight years, I think President Obama and his team have demonstrated that President Obama is willing to tackle difficult historical issues, to not be bound entirely by the events of the past or past challenges. I think you’ve seen that in our outreach, say, to Burma. I think you’ve seen that in what the President has done in his outreach to countries like Cuba as well. As I’ve tried to demonstrate here today, even with our close ally Japan, the President made clear that he’s willing to tackle these issues as well.

Before the Obama Administration, I find it quite striking that no U.S. ambassador had traveled to Hiroshima or Nagasaki before. That was the first decision that was made to start attending on a regular basis. And Ambassador Roos began that; Ambassador Kennedy I think has continued that very effectively. Secretary of State Kerry then went to Hiroshima, and of course the President did as well. And so I think the President, he did that because he thought it was the right decision, thought it was in our interest to do so. I think he was also trying to send a message to others around the world that we hope that all of us will have the courage to tackle these difficult issues.

I think we’ve been pleased to see, for example, in the last couple of years important work has taken place between Japan and South Korea on a range of issues that you’re quite familiar with. Those were decisions that were made in Tokyo and Seoul, but we tried to be helpful where we could. We tried to encourage that process. And when progress was made, we tried to speak out very forcefully in favor of it because we think that’s how our countries and our peoples overcome these difficult issues and are able to move forward. And I think that kind of cooperation has practical benefit as well. And in the case of Japan and South Korea, I think some of that work that was done on these very sensitive and difficult historical issues help promote practical cooperation.

So I think that’s been the general approach and the general mindset. I would say if you were able to follow the President’s visit to Vietnam in May, I think you saw him demonstrate that approach there as well, where we were able to address a number of legacy issues remaining from the Vietnam War, to take steps together to overcome them and take what is now our important partnership with Vietnam to a new level. I think you saw it when the President went to Laos as well, the first president to ever go to Laos. And there as well we spent time focusing on the difficult history that the United States and Laos had together. We made some agreements that allowed us to contribute to overcoming that history and a better future for our friends in Laos. And then we focused as well on areas of new cooperation that some of that work has opened up.

So that’s the general philosophy behind the approach. I think the examples I’ve given you are all successes, and I’m confident that the events on December 27 will demonstrate that as well.

MODERATOR: So we’ll conclude here. We thank you for your valuable time in a busy time of year. We thank Mr. Kritenbrink for his time joining us.