Donald Trump tomorrow concludes an important trip to Japan, with a packed political and economic agenda, including preparations for next month’s G20. Yet the primary reason for the visit, from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s viewpoint, has been the opportunity to deepen his personal bond with the mercurial president and fortify US-Japan ties in the face of significant international uncertainty, especially with the rise of China.
Top of the agenda the last few days has been not just the unravelling US-North Korean talks but also discussions on the US-Japan trade deal, which Trump and Director of the US National Economic Council Larry Kudlow have asserted could be finalised very soon.
The fact that Trump is visiting Japan, so soon before next month’s G20, and after the two leaders met only last month in the United States, underlines the relative warmth of Washington-Tokyo relations, right now. Abe, in particular, has invested massive personal political capital in the relationship — even reportedly nominating the US president for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Abe’s charm offensive pays off
To be sure, Abe’s charm offensive has paid some dividends. This includes the energy that is now being put into the US-Japan free trade deal with Kudlow in Tokyo in recent days to try to accelerate negotiations. Yet, despite the immense respect Abe has shown the White House, Japan has also been caught by surprise on several fronts by Trump during his presidency. This includes North Korea where Tokyo has been concerned, especially last year, about the speed with which the US president appeared to be pushing forward talks with Kim Jong-un.
While Abe publicly has asserted that Trump showed “courage” in doing so, including holding the summit in Singapore last year, the prime minister has been wary about where the talks could land. There has been particular anxiety that Tokyo’s key interests would not be pressed sufficiently hard by the president in the talks, including the issue of Japanese nationals abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. Abe has also been worried that Trump may look to a do a deal with Kim without taking Tokyo’s broader security interests into account. This included the possibility of Pyongyang potentially agreeing to give up missiles capable of reaching the United States, without eliminating short- and medium-range missiles that threaten Japan and neighbouring countries. Tensions between the two sides on this issue most recently surfaced this month when the long-time security allies appeared to disagree over Pyongyang’s recent launch of short-range ballistic missiles. Tokyo criticised the move as a violation of UN resolutions, while Trump said he did not believe the moves were a “breach of trust” by Kim
On the economic front, Abe is very pleased with the energy that is being put into the US-Japanese talks. In part, this is because the Washington-Tokyo negotiations come in the context of previous political tensions over the bilateral economic relationship with Trump’s often negative comments about Japan on the 2016 US president election trail.
‘Rising China’ concerns
This context helps explain why securing close ties with the White House is so important for Abe who is on track to become the longest serving prime minister in post-war Japanese history.
One of the key reasons he is keen to be so close to Trump is Japanese concerns about a ‘rising China’ in the Asia-Pacific. The prime minister has particular worries about Beijing’s growing influence, given the uncertainties that Trump’s presidency has brought for Tokyo, including the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is a trade and investment deal originally intended to lock the United States into deeper economic partnerships with traditional allies in the Asia region, including Japan.
Aligning with Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda
In this fluid geopolitical landscape, Abe is seeking to align his long-standing foreign policy plans around that of Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda. Thus, in a context whereby the president appears to want a more internationally assertive Japan, the prime minister has a long-standing ambition 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. One big, specific measure Abe wishes to push for is abolition of Article Nine. This is the clause in Japan’s post-war constitution which constrains the country’s military to a strictly defensive role rather than a conventional army, and has meant that defence spending has most often remained below 1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). To overturn this, Abe would need not just a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the legislature, but also a simple majority in a national referendum. This could prove a major challenge, however, given the large body of Japanese public opinion which still values its post-war pacifism in the only country in the world to have ever been attacked with nuclear weapons
Taken overall, Trump’s trip represents Abe’s latest move to fortify Japan’s US alliance in the face of China’s rise. He would dearly welcome capping his long period of office off with historic change around the country’s post-war pacifism which may enable it to become much more internationally engaged, albeit with the risk of significantly inflaming tensions with Beijing.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.