Florida sunshine for Abe, but storm clouds gather in Asia
When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited US President Donald Trump last week, he desperately needed a win. Abe faces elections in September and his poll ratings are at their lowest since 2012. Trump, on the other hand, could afford to play it cool; relations with Japan will have no impact on the US midterm elections.
Asia as a whole, however, does need to see results; despite the newly emollient words from Pyongyang on Saturday, the nuclear threat from North Korea remains, and there is also the ever stronger economic and geopolitical presence of China.
Abe had some nice photo ops playing golf with the president, which made him look statesmanlike — but that is not enough, given the current mood in his country. The economy has been stagnant and there are various scandals, the most recent being sexual harassment allegations against a senior civil servant (#MeToo has finally reached the shores of Japan). While this does not directly reflect on the prime minister, it is still a sign that the old ways of the political world will no longer do — and Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party are very much part and parcel of that tight-knit circle of politics, business and the bureaucracy. Life in Nagatacho, Tokyo’s political district, is about to become a lot less cosy.
On his US trip, Abe hoped to be able to reinvigorate the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The Obama administration had cajoled 12 Pacific rim countries (without China) into forming a trade pact, which would have encompassed 40 percent of the world’s GDP and constituted an effective defense against China’s ever-growing regional economic dominance. Alas, Trump saw the world differently, and on his first day in office he tore the treaty up. The other 11 nations felt strongly that something needed to be done. Under the guidance of Abe and Justin Trudeau of Canada, they re-invoked the “comprehensive Progressive TPP (CPTPP),” which was signed on March 8 in Chile.
All in all, Abe may not have obtained all he wanted from his US visit, but he can still spin it into a success back home.
Perhaps Abe hoped the Florida sunshine might change Trump’s mind, and for a while it indeed looked as though the president might consider rejoining the revamped TPP. In the end he decided against it, which is a shame as the CPTPP would have a lot more clout if the world’s largest economy were part of it. Trump feels uncomfortable on a multilateral stage, and much prefers bilateral negotiations, especially on trade.
This was a little bit of a setback for the Japanese prime minister, as it denied him his victory lap. He can still spin it sufficiently for domestic consumption, though, if he is able to negotiate a positive trading arrangement with the US.
There is also the issue of North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions are of great concern to Japan and the rest of Northeast Asia. What happens when Trump meets Kim Jong Un in June matters a great deal to Japan and its near neighbors. It was vital for the Japanese government to be able to give its input before this all-important meeting.
The whole region breathed an audible sigh of relief in the early hours of Saturday, when the North Korean leader announced that he would temporarily halt his nuclear weapons development. It is still unclear whether this is a sign that economic sanctions have finally paid off, or no more than a goodwill gesture from a meeting between the North Korean leader and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in.
Japan’s concerns over North Korea, however, go beyond the nuclear threat. In the 1970s North Korea abducted Japanese citizens; the official number is 17, but there may be more than 100. If Trump could negotiate a release of some, if not all, he would be a hero in Japan — and it would also give Abe a desperately needed popularity boost before the September elections.
All in all, Abe may not have obtained all he wanted from his US visit, but he can still spin it into a success back home. For Asia, it may look different. Having the US join the CPTPP fold would be important, especially in relation to China. As for the meeting between Trump and Kim, we are all waiting with bated breath. Before then, we will see what emerges from the North-South Korean summit.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources