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Japan grapples with two different faces of US

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to hold talks with Donald Trump in Washington in late January, soon after Trump is inaugurated as the new U.S. president.


The Abe administration has kept this plan secret because Abe’s meeting with President-elect Trump in November provoked an angry protest from outgoing President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, who noted that the U.S. has only one president. The Japanese government is maneuvering to build close ties with Trump as quickly as possible, while trying to avoid incurring the wrath of the Obama administration.


Tokyo has adopted an approach to dealing with the incoming Trump administration that differs completely from the way it managed relations with the Obama White House. It is a clear and simple approach, focused on creating as many opportunities as possible for Abe to meet with Trump and develop close personal ties between the two leaders.


That is because Trump, whose ideas and actions appear to be based on his experiences as an autocratic business leader, shows little interest in a bottom-up approach to policy decisions.

Japan has been pursuing a similar strategy in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During his two stints as prime minister, Abe has held 15 meetings with Putin.


Trump and the Russian leader both have an autocratic leadership style and prefer one-on-one, face-to-face talks, appearing quite confident in their ability to get a good deal through such negotiations. That means their diplomacy basically revolves around bilateral negotiations with other countries and places little importance on multilateral agendas.


Bilateral negotiations are also the basic approach to dealmaking in the world of business, where Trump has built his colorful career.


Trump has declared he will pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral trade agreement and has criticized the trilateral North American Free Trade Agreement. He has cited concerns about American jobs as the reason for attacking these trade deals.


But his lack of experience in terms of building multilateral relations seems to be affecting his policymaking process. This theory has been supported by his pledge to pursue more bilateral trade deals.


Personal ties


In its efforts to build good relations with the Trump White House, it makes sense for Japan to focus on the president himself.


There are precedents for close personal ties between the leaders of the two countries, which helped develop bilateral relations — the good rapport between Yasuhiro Nakasone and Ronald Reagan, as well as between Junichiro Koizumi and George W. Bush. Abe is clearly seeking to develop such a relationship with Trump.


Obama is the polar opposite of Trump. Obama has worked hard to create effective multilateral frameworks under an agenda stressing international cooperation. He has been a vocal champion of the principles and values the U.S. has traditionally upheld, such as freedom, equality and democracy.


Obama has not developed a special personal relationship with any other leader during his eight years in the White House. He has earned a reputation for immediately getting down to business in meetings, hindering the development of close personal ties.


Obama’s relations with Putin became chilly due to Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis. Obama, in the early part of his presidency, didn’t develop rapport with Abe, either.


Trump has made no secret of his contempt for “political correctness,” which requires neutral expressions intended to demonstrate the rejection of prejudice and discrimination. He has demonized political correctness, as eloquently embodied by Obama, as one of the reasons behind the strong sense of frustration felt by a broad range of Americans.


On the other hand, Trump has lauded Putin, who led Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as someone who has been a leader “far more than” Obama has.


Principles and values


Trump’s language conjures up disturbing images of a nation that places little importance on principles and values and is inclined to forge alliances haphazardly in a single-minded pursuit of its own interests.


Since the end of World War II, Japan has developed a solid alliance with the U.S. based on such common principles and values as freedom, equality and democracy. Trump’s vision for his country seems to be at odds with the history of the bilateral alliance.


With just a month until he leaves office, Obama is riding high in opinion polls, with approval ratings hovering around 55%. That is a surprisingly high level of public support for any outgoing president, actually on par with the poll numbers of the popular President Reagan in the closing days of his administration.


This indicates that the election of Trump does not necessarily mean America is fed up with Obama’s political correctness.


Abe is slated to visit Pearl Harbor with Obama on Dec. 26-28, to console the spirits of the victims of the Japanese attack in December 1941. If the visit is intended to open a new chapter in the history of Japan’s alliance with the U.S., Abe may find the new chapter is about Japan’s struggle to tackle the tricky challenge of dealing with a vital ally which has two completely different faces.

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