Author: Editorial Board, ANU
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pulling out all the stops for US President Donald Trump. After Abe visited Trump in Washington on 26–27 April, Trump is in Tokyo now for a four-day state visit. This makes Trump the first foreign leader to meet with Japan’s newly enthroned Emperor Naruhito. Trump also presented the winner of the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament with a newly made ‘Trump Cup’ trophy. The accordance of these honours to Trump would suggest the unwavering strength of the US–Japan relationship. But the optics obscure a complicated and still chaotic reality.
As Trump’s unpredictability has disrupted the global order that the United States has built and led since 1945, world leaders have scrambled to mitigate the damage. Many traditional US allies and partners have at times openly clashed with Trump, especially in multilateral settings such as the G7 and G20 summits.
Shinzo Abe, by contrast, has sought to mollify Trump with flattery. This ‘hug diplomacy’ has seen Abe make six visits to the United States since Trump’s election. Abe has had 30 phone conversations with Trump, more than any other world leader. The two play golf together around their bilateral summits. Abe swapped out the sushi he served Obama for Trump’s preferred hamburgers. Abe reportedly nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize. And to convince Trump to make this second summit visit to Japan and to meet Emperor Naruhito, Abe adopted Trumpian bombast likening the imperial succession to an event as big as ‘100 Super Bowls’.
The extraordinary effort that Abe has put into cultivating close personal ties with Trump seeks to promote US–Japan cooperation, or at least to mitigate damage of Trump’s administration as much as possible, in three key areas: security, trade and North Korea.
On the security front, there were concerns that the US military under the Trump administration would not continue to defend Japanese administered territories, as per Article 5 of the US–Japan Security Treaty, including the Senkaku Islands (claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands). Trump called for Japan and other US allies to pay more for the hosting of US troops and military bases and suggested that Japan could defend itself, presumably without US help, by developing its own nuclear weapons.
Abe moved quickly to mitigate these security risks. As Fumiaki Kubo explains in our lead article this week, ‘When it comes to Trump’s inconsistency, it might be that personal relations are of paramount importance for a president who does not have intimate knowledge or firm principles on foreign affairs’. For this reason, it appears, ‘Abe’s intimate approach to diplomacy has been on the right track’. In their first official summit meeting, ‘Abe succeeded in getting Trump to reverse his uncertain position on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Since that meeting, the security aspect of US–Japan relations has been generally stable’. The core bargain of the alliance — whereby the United States guarantees the security of Japanese administered territory in exchange for land, sea, and air facilities for US military bases in Japan — continues to benefit both countries and regional stability.
On trade, Trump has complained about the US trade deficit with Japan, demanded the removal of Japanese tariffs on agricultural goods and cars, and pressured Japan to the negotiating table for a bilateral trade agreement.
As Asuka Matsumoto explains, Trump’s approach on cars left Abe perplexed. ‘Japan has not imposed tariffs on US cars, but the United States imposed a 2.5 per cent tariff on Japan’s’. Even more worrisome for Japan is the threat that ‘the United States is looking to increase tariffs on cars to 25 per cent’. The imposition of tariffs of 25 per cent on steel and aluminium show that this is no idle threat.
Given this tricky wicket, and seeking to forestall further tariffs, the Abe government has, so far, been somewhat successful in deflecting US pressure under the current trade negotiations, Aurelia George Mulgan argues. In particular, Japan has adopted three mechanisms to deflect this pressure. Japan has insisted that bilateral trade agreement negotiations be limited ‘to “a trade agreement on goods” in order to exclude currency matters’. It has drawn on its successful conclusion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Japan–EU Economic Partnership Agreement (JEEPA) in order ‘to enter negotiations with the United States with a firm limit set on any concessions’. And Abe has sought to use the examples of the CPTPP and JEEPA as examples of ‘the benefits of “win–win” agreements…in contrast to [Trump’s] “win–lose” model’. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how long Japan can continue to deflect and stall given Trump’s mercurial tendencies.
On North Korea, Abe has sought to gain Trump’s cooperation on two things. First, Abe has asked Trump to raise the issue of the abductions of Japanese citizens with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. This was reportedly successful and it is believed that Trump did bring up the abduction issue with Kim. What, if any, response Kim proffered remains a mystery. Second, Abe sought to guard against Trump making a weak agreement with North Korea that would either fall short of full-fledged denuclearisation or would only deal with long-range missiles targeting the United States but not short- or medium-range missiles targeting Japan. While Trump’s effusive praise of Kim Jong-un would have stung Abe’s ears, the two US–DPRK summits in Singapore and Hanoi failed to deliver any major breakthroughs, and North Korea recently conducted short-range missile tests, Japan can breathe a sigh of relief that US–DPRK negotiations toward a comprehensive rather than limited resolution look set to continue for now.
Overall, Abe has so far achieved mixed success in mollifying Trump-led chaos. But the biggest challenge to the Abe–Trump bromance will come next month when Japan hosts the G20 summit.
As Kubo notes, Abe should ‘remember the G7 summit meeting in 2018, where leaders were unable to agree on a joint statement because Trump disagreed with the proposed draft on maintaining the international free trade order’, and prepare accordingly. With WTO reform on the agenda and the shadow of the worsening US–China trade war lurking over the summit, Abe will need more than flattery and ‘hug diplomacy’ to keep Trump onside and deliver successful outcomes to defend and bolster the international rules-based trade regime. Simply muddling through at the G20 in Osaka would not only be a wasted opportunity, it would also leave Abe and Japan looking exposed and distinctly inadequate to the main challenge of our times.
The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.