Abe’s narrow path to success

The Japanese Prime Minister needs solid wins from his meeting with Trump

Stephen R Nagy

Government and governance, International relations | Asia, East Asia, The World

17 April 2018

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces a difficult road ahead in securing not only Japan’s national interests, but his own political survival, Stephen Nagy writes.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s hastily organised visit to Mara-Lago to meet President Trump comes at a time in which a constellation of significant events has caused Japan to recalibrate its diplomatic approach with both North Korea and the US.

At the domestic level, Abe faces scandals at home that threaten to derail the political stability and strategic vision that has come with his tenure as Prime Minister since December 2012. The Moritomo and Kake scandals have not only dented his domestic support amongst constituents but also emboldened some political rivals within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to more openly challenge his leadership in the upcoming LDP presidential election.

This domestic insurgency is complicating Abe’s ability to garner support for a more forthright approach to North Korea, as well as his ability to manage relations with China and an “America First” Trump administration.

At a regional level, Pyongyang’s Olympic and post-Olympic diplomacy has altered the momentum within the region. Countries are no longer unified behind a sustained “maximum pressure” approach to defanging Pyongyang’s strategic nuclear deterrent.

More on this: Trump-Kim: will they or won’t they?

By first peeling away the South Koreans from a united front against Pyongyang through the offering of a North-South Head of State Summit, and then resuscitating the Pyongyang-Beijing relationship with Kim’s visit to Beijing last month, North Korea has maximised the fractures in the united approach to force it to succumb to denuclearisation.

Trump’s surprise declaration that he would meet Kim Jong-un without consulting US allies has left the Abe administration wondering whether its interests will be represented at the negotiating table.

Abe’s visit with Trump, therefore, needs to be characterised by communication, cooperation and consolidation.

In terms, of communication, Abe needs to convey to Trump that merely stopping the North’s inter-continental ballistic missile capabilities or nuclear program would still leave Japan and South Korea vulnerable to threats from Pyongyang. These would include the mid-range missiles and plethora of submarine-based missile systems that Pyongyang has invested heavily in.

The most worrisome threats include short and mid-range systems such as No-Dong systems, Scud missiles and a newer mobile solid-fuelled SS-21 variant called the KN-02. North Korea’s long track record of conducting short and mid-range missiles into the Sea of Japan exacerbates Tokyo’s concerns.

More on this: Is North Korea 'fighting while talking'?

While short and mid-range missiles remain the central concern for Tokyo, Abe also needs to convey to Trump that the North Korean regime is a long-term security challenge in the region, especially if it maximises it byungjin objectives of parallel nuclear and economic development. In this case, even a relatively strong North Korean economy that had nuclear weapons would be in a position to engage in nuclear blackmail with South Korea, and potentially Japan.

It’s conceivable that Pyongyang could promote reunification or some kind of federation on favourable terms or pressure the South to end their longstanding alliance with the US. In either scenario, America’s presence would diminish or be removed altogether. Meanwhile, Japan’s security would be severely compromised, not only in relation to North Korea but also in the context of China’s march towards regional hegemony.

In the economic realm, Abe will want to impress upon Trump that the US and Japan are economic partners, not rivals, and that punitive measures such as steel tariffs on Japan are unnecessary and unwarranted. Trump’s recent comments on potentially rejoining a renegotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership will no doubt be encouraged by Abe, who has crafted a successor trade agreement which intentionally leaves room for the US to reconsider at some later stage.

Abe needs to communicate to President Trump that the TPP is not just an economic agreement that lays down trade rules that would shape the evolution of trade in the 21st century. It is also an agreement that has security components that could help buttress the Quadrilateral initiative and Indo-Pacific concept.

More on this: How countries could respond to Trump’s Trade War

Pressing Japan’s national security concerns are of paramount importance for this visit. At the same time, Abe needs to stress, like he has done from the moment it became apparent that Trump would indeed become president, that Japan will maximise its cooperation with the US to deal with security issues in the region. This cooperation has manifested in the strengthening of the US-Japan Alliance since Trump became president, increasing the number of joint operations, and standing side-by-side with the US in its efforts to intensify pressure on the North.

The Abe Administration should continue this deepening of relations, but also stress its intention to other forms of cooperation with the US, such as the Quadrilateral initiative to promote a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. If Abe can facilitate America’s return to the TPP, this would demonstrate Japan’s commitment to fostering a fair and mutually beneficial trading relationship.

Crucially, through economic cooperation and multilateral trade agreements, Japan and the US can maximise not only their longstanding military alliance, but also their economic comparative advantages to balance China’s Belt and Road Initiative and efforts to become the regional hegemon.

The bar for success is very high for Abe. Without solid wins from his meeting with Trump, he may find it increasingly difficult to manage the domestic political insurgency at home and be forced to step down from leadership. On the flip side, a successful visit may garner him valuable political capital to maintain his leadership, achieve his security objectives vis-a-vis North Korea and China, and the time to see his economic policies bear fruit.

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5 Responses

  1. Chika says:

    To some extent, Asahi and other China hugger news media, and their dancer non-ruling parties are successfully dragging him down. If he is going to call a snap general election or not, it will make things change. After all, Asahi, non-ruling parties etc. are resisting to revision of Article 9 (forever unarmed article to restrain our arms and legs until our countrymen/countrywoman are actually killed. If we keep it, who wins?) and removing the current vested rights of mass media (which is necessary, I think. Japanese have only six major TV channels plus some of thier BS channels). I support him because the employment rate among new graduates has been improving since he was re-elected, and he is the first PM who considers our self-defence seriously.

    Many Japanese companies are low on generations of employees in 30s to 40s vital to our future growth, many of whom missed the chance to be employed or get a regular position when they graduated in so-called super ice age employment conditions / the second lost decade of deflation. Deflation was obviously caused by the old Minshu (Liberal) Party, which left Yen hiking ever, encouraged companies going outside, removing jobs, etc. This is serious even if the younger generation is getting less and less.

    I don’t think it a good idea to pull him out now until he stops the Ministry of Finance. It is not a fight with scandals but with old systems.

  2. Nanaka says:

    I have similar ideas on the previous response. Japanese politics seem as if competing how fast the party can drag down the Prime Minister. The media also pick up the news more about scandals occurred among politicians. This manners create distrust of the government among citizens which lead to another election. If the Diet and media keep focusing on those things, it is hard to break the vicious cycle.
    According to the article and other readings, it is obvious that Japan is inter depended on alliance with the United States. When North Korea made approaches to South Korea, China and finally United States, Japan could not wait to meet Trump for confirmation about their relationship. I realized that what Japan concerns the most is relationships among countries. Even back in 1990s, Japan cherish engaging in economical support for China. Why Japan does not find a way to improve situations, such as economy and security, by itself? Is it only because Japan does not have resources and military? Although Japan is known for one of the developed countries in the world, I feel the country is at the brink of falling.

  3. Republished: Shinzo Abe needs solid wins from his meeting with Trump – BKKOK.COM says:

    […] By Stephen R Nagy, a Senior Associate Professor of Politics and International Studies at the International Christian University, Tokyo, and a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation (APF) in Canada. Originally published on PolicyForum.net. […]

  4. […] article was originally published in the Asia and Pacific Policy Society in the 17th of April 2018 and is republished on Glos Review under Dr. Steven R. Nagy’s […]

  5. Yusuke says:

    Balancing domestic politics and national interest is a task that any leader of the country face. In the case of Japan, the government policy may lean more on satisfying the Japanese people in the short run due to its democratic system, preventing prime minister Abe to plan a long-term foreign policy. However, from reading this article, he seems to manage the current situation very well. To reduce the imminent threat of North Korea, he plans to show strong alliance with the U.S by meeting with Trump. His action will certainly maintain regional hegemony, and at the same time gain popularity domestically.
    In my opinion, the Japanese foreign policy is undermined by the strong reliance on Japan-US alliance. The prominent Japanese decision of favoring U.S alliance may be beneficial to eliminate sudden threats, but it lacks the future perspective of Japan’s relations with neighboring countries which excludes the existence of America. From an American point of view, North Korea is indeed a national threat, and there is a high possibility of cooperating with Japan to tackle the problem. However, when time passes, and America considers North Korea as not a threat to national security, the support from America to Japan may weaken. In this scenario, Japan may have to obey the regional customs that China creates in the region. The relations between these two countries will solely depend on their military and economic power. With Japan in the weak position, China may invade the Japanese territory legitimately. This outcome is unfavorable for Japanese people, so the government has the responsibility to reform Japan into a dependent country which possesses the capacity to cooperate with the neighboring countries.

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