International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, The World

10 November 2017

Shinzo Abe has kept Donald Trump onside, but messages about trade deals and an Indo-Pacific coalition will give Japan cause for concern, Christian Wirth writes.

US presidents travelling to East Asia face the challenge of navigating the political sensitivities of their allies while safeguarding working relations with rivals, keeping peace with adversaries, and appeasing audiences at home. The default solution has been to make Japan the first stop thereby alleviating fears of ‘Japan passing’ and to display unity in the face of common threats.

After this year’s war of words between Chairman Kim and President Trump over North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests, this common threat has become clearer and more present than ever.

No one has been more vocal in raising concerns about North Korea and more eager to strengthen alliance relationships than Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He consistently supported President Trump’s ‘all options are on the table’ and ‘maximum pressure’ approach while arguing that this is not the time for dialogue with Kim.

More on this: Trump in Korea: where’s the policy?

Focused on their mission to ‘take back’, that is, to liberate Japan from the shackles of the war-renouncing constitution and restore the nation’s pride and place in the international community, Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party came to see their inability to coerce Pyongyang into acquiescing to Japanese demands, including the release of abductees and its complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation, as the epitome of their powerlessness, of a Japan in crisis.

Thus, Abe has been pulling out all stops to enlist US support, including flying to New York shortly after Trump’s election, presenting him with golf equipment and, in addition to numerous phone calls, also hitting the links together.

Finally, the Foreign Ministry invited Ivanka Trump to give a speech on women’s empowerment just ahead of her father’s arrival for the upgraded official visit.

Another round of golf was especially memorable because the two leaders signed caps with the golden inscription: ‘Donald & Shinzo: Make Alliance Even Greater’. This was followed by a meeting with the parents of Megumi Yokota, the best known of the Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Prime Minister Abe asked President Trump to help him with the return of her and 11 others. Defiant Pyongyang insists that they all passed away.

At first sight, in this trip Abe has succeeded in keeping Trump on his side. While the Japanese boulevard embraced Ivanka, newspapers saw a revival of the famously close interpersonal bonds between President Reagan and Prime Minister Nakasone. At the same time, Abe will be able to deflect criticisms for his failure to bring the abductees home: either Donald will, or there is proof that no one can.

More on this: Trump’s East Asia tour de force?

Yet, for the Japanese government, the visit was no success. Trump failed to endorse Abe’s renewed proposal for a de facto anti-Chinese ‘Indo-Pacific’ coalition, actually calling President Xi Jinping his friend, while even showing some signs of pragmatism on North Korea.

More worrisome was when Trump, who had abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, one of Abe’s earlier signature policies, kept on harping on about allegedly unfair trade practices and, uncomfortably reminiscent of the 1980s, pressured Japan to import more US cars while buying ‘massive amounts’ of US weapons.

If this was not enough, the next day, South Korean President Moon Jae-in contradicted Abe when he called for a peaceful solution to the North Korea problem. Moon also infuriated Tokyo with the invitation of one of the last surviving so-called comfort women, a victim of systematic sexual abuse committed by Imperial Japanese forces during World War II, to the state banquet – a dinner where guests were served shrimps caught near islets claimed by Japan.

Against the background of Northeast Asian leaders’ courting of Trump and quarrelling among themselves, President Trump’s display of pragmatism and refraining from controversial statements made him appear like a statesman. So far, the White House’s diplomatic strategy has succeeded. Rather than focusing on the president, though, we will have to observe the actions of his top officials in order to know into what direction US policies evolve.

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