Abe’s skilful Trump diplomacy

Why ‘Donald and Shinzo: Make Alliance Even Greater’ is more than just a play on words

Sebastian Maslow

PHOTO: Toru Hanai/Pool Photo via AP

Government and governance, Trade and industry, International relations, Trump in Asia | Asia, East Asia, The World

10 November 2017

Abe’s handling of Trump’s recent Japan visit should be seen as a case of successful Japanese diplomacy, Sebastian Maslow writes.

As part of his new ‘proactive pacifism’ doctrine, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has comprehensively revised Japan’s national security posture allowing for Tokyo’s participation in collective self-defence operations alongside its US ally. At the same time, Japan has embraced the US Pivot to Asia through strengthening old and building new security partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region.

In light of China’s increased military and economic presence – particularly Beijing’s challenge to the maritime status quo in the South and East China Seas – the primary objective of Abe’s evolving security strategy is the hedging of China’s power.

To achieve this objective, Abe has invested heavily in deepening Japan’s security ties with its US ally during his five years in office since returning as prime minister in 2012. The recent round of Trump-Abe ‘golf diplomacy’ and reference to the ‘extraordinary’ status of US-Japan relations during Trump’s recent visit to Tokyo should serve as evidence of Abe’s skilful handling of US-Japan relations.

Few world leaders have succeeded in obtaining such frequent White House access and trust of the president, at such an early stage in Trump’s presidency.

More on this: Trump in Korea: bluster and sound bites, but where's the policy?

Common foreign policy concerns have provided both leaders with the ground for establishing close personal ties. Specifically, Trump’s hawkish stance on North Korea and the looming crisis on the Peninsula has offered Abe an apt opportunity to mobilise domestic support for his own security agenda of restoring a ‘strong Japan’ by the means of constitutional revision.

Abe has established his political career on advocating economic sanctions targeting North Korea as a policy instrument to resolve the North’s state-sponsored kidnapping campaign of Japanese nationals during the 1970s and 1980s – a main obstacle in Japan-North Korea relations. Trump’s mentioning of the kidnappings in his UN speech in September and his personal meeting with abduction victims and their families were well-orchestrated moves. They gave support to Abe’s North Korea threat narrative following his recent victory in the lower house elections.

In addition, the recent US-Japan summit has renewed Abe’s commitment to hedge China, as Tokyo and Washington have laid out their own regional strategy in confronting Beijing’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Somewhat resampling Abe’s ‘security diamond’ vision for regional leadership, Trump and Abe have pledged to focus on financing infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific region.

More on this: An East Asia tour de force?

In consequence, the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation, as well as Japan’s Bank for International Cooperation and Nippon Export and Investment Insurance, have agreed to cooperate in financing large-scale infrastructure projects in and outside of Asia – but especially in regions targeted by China’s OBOR initiative.

In sum, Abe is committed to a strong US-Japan alliance under Trump. Abe’s statement of ‘Donald and Shinzo: Make Alliance Even Greater’ should be seen as more than just a rhetorical play on words. Abe’s foreign policy and security reform agenda is deeply entangled in the US regional strategy. Yet, while Abe has willingly followed Trump’s North Korea course, the risk of military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula also entails the risk of a backlash to Abe’s security agenda, as public concerns over Japanese entrapment in US military action remain.

Either way, securing a strong US commitment to an enduring Asia-Pacific presence based on the US-Japan security alliance lies at the very core of Abe’s agenda. In this regard, the current Abe-Trump meeting should be considered a success for Japan’s diplomacy.

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