Abe aligns with Trump amidst regional tensions

Abe aligns with Trump amidst regional tensions

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday finished his two-day meeting with US President Donald Trump in Florida. The trip, coming at a time of major domestic troubles for the prime minister, gave him his latest opportunity to deepen his personal bond with the mercurial president and fortify US-Japan ties in the face of uncertainty about key elements of US policy in Asia-Pacific.

Well over a year into office, Trump has spent much time focused on North Korea, but not yet outlined his wider Asia-Pacific policy as an alternative vision to Barack Obama’s regional “pivot.” Previously, the Obama administration pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade and investment deal to underline its regional commitment, partly to push back on China’s growing power and presence, which is a concern for some Asia allies. But the Trump team pulled out of that accord with no replacement initiatives, so far, leaving Asian allies anxious. 

To be sure, Trump last year made the longest trip to Asia by any US president since the early 1990s. Yet the visit, which was dominated by Pyongyang’s provocations, did little to articulate what the administration’s political, security and economic ambitions for the region are. Indeed, there is a danger that the administration appears so overwhelmingly focused on North Korea — crucial as it is to resolve that issue — that it shows little affinity for the broader range of issues in the regional dialogue. This continues to fuel concerns in some countries that their agendas are not aligned and that the administration cares little for them.

There is also a genuine element of confusion in certain areas of US policy toward the region. On Taiwan, for instance, Trump breached the longstanding bilateral status quo in December 2016 in a call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. This was a violation of the so-called “One China” protocol, under which Washington agreed to withdraw diplomatic recognition of the island nation as part of a deal to open up relations with the mainland. Yet, since then, Trump seems to have reversed course, promoting uncertainty over his team’s stance toward the island.

These perceptions of concern and confusion were brought into sharp focus in Florida this week, with Abe — despite the charm offensive he has launched with Trump — caught by surprise by several recent announcements, including the US trade tariffs in March. On the economic front, the prime minister is keen to mitigate tensions in the bilateral relationship given Trump’s negative comments about Japan on the 2016 campaign trail. 

While the now-president had warm words for Japan about a potential new bilateral free trade deal, he has previously strongly criticized Tokyo for unfair trade practices involving car imports and exports; accused it of using monetary policy to devalue its currency to boost exporters; and asserted that the bilateral security relationship had become too one-sided, with Japan needing to take on more of the financial burden.  

A second key area where Abe had been blindsided by the White House’s recent actions is North Korea itself. While Abe said on Tuesday that Trump had shown “courage” in agreeing to his potential summit with Kim Jong-un, the prime minister pressed that the president try to put on the table the issue of Japanese nationals abducted in the 1970 and 1980s, and also take Japan’s broader security interests into account in the meeting.

Tokyo is worried Trump, who announced on Wednesday that Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo had met Kim over Easter, may look to do a deal under which Pyongyang would agree to give up missiles capable of reaching the United States, without eliminating the short and medium-range missiles that threaten Japan. 

For Abe, his meeting at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida was therefore intended to showcase the enduring strength of US-Japan relations. Here he sought assurances from Trump that it remains his view that “the bond between our two nations and the friendship between our two peoples runs very, very deep. This administration is committed to bringing those ties even closer.”

Aside from North Korea, the key international reason Abe is keen to be close to Trump is Japanese concerns about a “rising China” in Asia-Pacific.

Andrew Hammond

Securing these commitments is important for Abe for two reasons. Firstly, his domestic poll ratings have been hit by several scandals over suspected favoritism and cover-ups. This political misfortune, which former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi asserts means Abe could resign as soon as June, came as he had been contemplating a potential new term of office in a September vote, and potentially being on a pathway to becoming the nation’s longest-serving premier.

Aside from North Korea, the key international reason Abe is keen to be close to Trump is Japanese concerns about a “rising China” in Asia-Pacific. The prime minister has particular worries about Beijing’s growing influence in the context of the uncertainties that Trump’s presidency will bring, including US withdrawal from TPP.

In this fluid geopolitical landscape, Abe is seeking to align his long-standing foreign policy plans around that of Trump’s agenda. Thus, in a context whereby the president appears to want a more internationally assertive Japan, the prime minister would still like to overturn much of the remaining legal and political underpinning of the country’s post-war pacifist security identity so that it can become more externally engaged, but this would probably come at the cost of greater tensions with China. 

Taken overall, the Florida meetings represented Abe’s latest move to fortify his relationship with Trump at a time of significant uncertainty over US policy toward Asia-Pacific. With his domestic political standing at a potential tipping point, the prime minister doubled down on securing greater clarity over the Trump team’s goals in the region and extracting concessions, including on North Korea, with only mixed success.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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