CONCERNS REMAIN FOR ABE FOLLOWING SUCCESS OF SUMMIT WITH TRUMP
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent round of talks with President Donald Trump was a huge success. Throughout his three-day visit (February 10-12), his host gave him a warm welcome. Trump greeted him with a big hug at the door of the West Wing on his arrival at the White House, and as they shook hands with each other before the press in the Oval Office, Trump held on to Abe’s hand for 19 seconds, patting it twice. During the visit that followed to Trump’s plush Florida villa, the two leaders shared long hours together, discussing a wide range of issues, including trade and security. There also were sumptuous meals and 27 holes of golf—a game both of them enjoy immensely.
All of this will be long remembered in Japan as the fruit of Abe’s proactive diplomacy towards the US—a deft approach that probably no other Japanese political leader could pull off. I believe Abe has earned for himself a position as a politician hard to replace at home and an international leader with a presence abroad.
Abe has so far achieved as much success as he could hope for in dealing with the Trump administration. Confronting Trump, who had charged Japan with spending too little on its own security and appeared to slight the US-Japan alliance during the campaign, Abe managed to incorporate the following assurances into a joint US-Japan communique:
–The unshakable US-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of peace, prosperity, and freedom in the Asia-Pacific region;
–The US commitment to defend Japan through the full range of US military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional, is unwavering; and,
–Article 5 of the US-Japan Treaty Security Treaty covers the Senkaku Islands.
Ironically, Abe’s diplomatic achievement was given a boost and enhanced by North Korea. The two leaders held a joint news conference in Florida early on February 12, denouncing North Korea for firing a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan earlier in the same day. Abe condemned the missile launch as “absolutely intolerable,” while Trump declared the US “stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.”
It was significant that Abe won this commitment from Trump, who less than a year before had callously blurted out in an interview: “Wouldn’t you rather, in a certain sense, have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?” One is freshly reminded that Mr. Abe is indeed a lucky politician.
Clearly, this turn of events constitutes a major diplomatic achievement for Abe. But an equally pertinent element should not be overlooked: Abe succeeded in virtually removing Trump from the decision-making process in the new administration involving crucial trade and security policies toward Japan, narrowing the opportunity for presidential intervention in specific policies that will be worked out by his team of experts.
Biggest Achievement of Abe Visit
A week preceding Abe’s departure, Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Japan to confer with Abe and Defense Minister Ms. Tomomi Inada. Expressing America’s readiness to “stand firmly, shoulder to shoulder with the Japanese people,” Mattis declared that “Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty applies (to the Senkakus),” reassuring his hosts that the US is committed to defending Japan and territories it administers against any attack. At the summit, the president followed the security policy track laid down by his secretary of defense.
Abe adroitly won Trump’s consent to a similar framework to discuss bilateral economic ties through high-level dialogue between Vice President Mike Pence and his Japanese counterpart Taro Aso, who doubles as finance minister. This was by far the biggest achievement of Abe’s summit with Trump.
Abe said he proposed the economic dialogue—with Aso and Pence playing key roles—over one of the dinners and got Trump’s instant consent. Holding a joint news conference to denounce North Korea’s missile launch was also promptly agreed to by the two leaders. These superbly timely proposals and decisions could not have been possible without Abe having formulated a definite strategy ahead of time. Does that by any chance mean Abe is aware that America—and the rest of the world for that matter—have sadly tumbled into an age in which the less the head of a state intervenes, the better the results?
Mattis, Pence, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all think like mainstream Republicans. I suspect policies resulting from close consultations among the trio will automatically be different from the often impulsive and wild ideas of their president.
Past relations between the US and Japan have been stormy at times and any future negotiations with mainstream Republicans will not necessarily progress as smoothly as Japan desires. But I suspect there will be less possibility of the Abe administration confronting intemperate demands from Washington in disregard of the norms of the international community.
The danger of Trump’s reckless approach to international affairs was typically reflected in his remarks about Taiwan. As is widely known, on December 2 Trump received a protocol-breaking phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan congratulating him on his election victory. Infuriated over Beijing’s harsh reaction to his phone conversation with Tsai, Trump went so far as to make this now infamous “impulsive statement” about China: “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘one China policy’ unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
Sizing Up Trump’s Wavering China Policy
In a series of related remarks that followed, Trump questioned China’s huge trade surplus with the US and its intentional currency devaluation policy, voicing again a readiness to chart a new direction under which his administration would refuse to honor America’s long-standing policy towards China.
And yet, Trump sent a letter to President Xi Jing-pin on February 8 and the following day—the day before receiving Abe—engaged in a hour-long phone conversation with Xi in which he agreed the US government would honor the “one China” policy after all.
It would seem natural for Japan to wonder about the timing of Trump’s renewed commitment to Beijing, but it was a blatant outrage for Taiwan. Any review of the “one China” policy on the part of Washington is a life or death matter for the self-ruled island. But President Tsai handled the situation with composure. Touching on Trump’s statement regarding China during a news conference on December 31, Tsai put a check on Beijing by noting that America’s China policy reflects its own interpretation of the circumstances. She also warned that she expects to see Taiwan “also face some uncertainties” after the inauguration of the Trump administration.
Sources close to Tsai note that Taiwan is hardly hoping for a sudden and drastic change of status. Taiwan’s true intention is, these sources further explain, to enhance its capabilities in all fields over time, including the military, with hopes of creating the opportunity to secure a solid foundation for its future as an independent state. Dramatic change definitely is not welcome.
One major factor contributing to the success of Abe’s visit was Trump’s having somehow reversed his stance completely regarding trade and security issues, refraining from repeating his earlier remarks about Japan’s posture that would have been construed as “Japan bashing.” This was a welcome development for Japan. But what if Trump had not refrained from those remarks?
Trump’s complete about-face on issues involving Taiwan and the US-Japan alliance has produced contrasting results for Taipei and Tokyo, but they both trace back to the same cause. The American president may have his own way of coping with short-term challenges, but is sorely devoid of medium to long term strategies required to tackle bigger issues.
That is why Japan cannot, and should not, forever rely on the US, much as we treasure and are striving to further solidify the ongoing bilateral relationship. Prime Minister Abe is called on to do his utmost in preparing Japan for its future as a fully independent leader in the Asia-Pacific region and America’s equal and trusted ally.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 742 in the February 23 issue of The Weekly Shincho)