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Trump’s “secret envoy” visited Tokyo in advance to lay groundwork for summit

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited President Trump at the White House bearing gifts, including new jobs and massive infrastructure investments in the U.S. He later received unprecedented red carpet treatment, according to a GOJ official, in which he was flown to Florida on Air Force One, spent two nights at Trump’s private residence, and played golf with him. Here is a behind-the-scenes report on Abe’s “tributary diplomacy.”

Last December, high-level Japanese government officials met in Tokyo with a sharp-featured American man who looked like a business executive. He was the “secret envoy” sent by the U.S. government to lay the groundwork for a successful Japan-U.S. summit.


The man’s name is Paul Manafort. He is a close aide to President Trump and served as his presidential campaign chairman. He was forced to resign in August in the midst of the presidential campaign due to allegations that he may have illegally received massive funds from pro-Russian Ukrainian factions.

“He is a traditional mainstream Republican business consultant who served under both the Reagan and both Bush administrations,” says an expert on Japan-U.S. relations. “He is highly respected as an election strategist. If he had not resigned, he would have been appointed chief strategist instead of Bannon. Even now, Trump places great trust in him.”

Japanese officials spent an hour talking to Manafort.


“Manafort went through the so-called “Trump Trade Doctrine” that was released last September, covering tax cuts and deregulation policies,” explains a Kantei source. “Also, he apparently emphasized the President’s three key priorities of rectifying the depreciated yen, eliminating the trade deficit, and reinforcing defense capabilities. To put it bluntly, his visit to Japan was meant to apply pressure.”


This meeting with Manafort accelerated the GOJ’s formulation of a policy package for Trump. The effort was lead by Takaya Imai, Abe’s Chief Secretary, with help from some METI officials. “Trump is like Gian [the bully] and we are Nobita [the protagonist] from Doraemon [the popular Japanese manga series],” joked one METI official, drawing laughter from the preparation team. By mid-January, a draft of the so-called “Imai Paper” was compiled, outlining economic cooperation proposals.

“The plan was aimed at creating a 450 billion dollar (approx. 51 trillion yen) market in the U.S. through infrastructure investments, among other things,” says a Kantei official. “It proposed creating about 700,000 jobs.”


“Two of the key initiatives were high-speed rail development on the East Coast, in Texas, and in California, and joint development of robots and AI,” states a GOJ staffer. “The high-speed rail plan alone was worth 5 trillion yen. Also, joining forces in the AI arena, where Japan is lagging behind, would give us an opportunity to become a leading player in the industry.”


Imai accompanied Prime Minister Abe on his four-nation tour including the Philippines, but he left in the middle of the tour to take a solo trip to the U.S.


According to a high-ranking Kantei official, “Imai went to New York to meet with Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, to explain Japan’s policy package.”

Meanwhile, discord began to emerge within the Japanese government.


“Imai is too brazen. Looking at his package, you might mistake it for official development assistance for a developing country,” laments one MOF official. “It’s too extravagant. There is sure to be public backlash. The joint statement that was released bound us to that draft proposal even though the Trump administration still has many vacant posts to fill.”


An LDP legislator close to the prime minister states, “They spent a lot of time together in addition to sharing five meals. It was a good start to what the prime minister likes to call strategic honeymoon relationship building with the U.S. I’m sure staffers are working hard behind the scenes to explain the economic contribution policies. ”


The funding is rumored to be coming out of Japan’s public pension fund. “This is just like the economic cooperation plan Prime Minister Abe promised to Russia last year. Has he forgotten which country he is representing?” asks outraged political scientist Jin Igarashi. “This is an extreme form of tributary diplomacy; he is overtly promoting ‘America First’ policies.”

Prime Minister Abe didn’t seem the least bit concerned as he enjoyed playing golf with President Trump, who shoots in the 70s. “Mr. Abe shoots in the 90s. He’s only an average player, so spent his day off on Feb. 4 practicing on a golf course in Tokyo,” shares a Kantei source.

While the prime minister was in the U.S., Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and LDP Secretary-General Nikai dined together, which is a rare occurrence. Eiji Oshita, a writer who also attended the dinner, described their conversation as follows:


Suga: “The prime minister’s interest in China has been deepening. I would like to ask you for your cooperation in elevating the Japan-China relationship.”


Nikai: “The U.S. would like us to improve our relations with China. As fellow Asian nations, we need to exchange views with China and get along.”


Nikai is known to be the most pro-China politician in the Japanese political arena. What does it mean for the prime minister to ask for Nikai’s help in building a harmonious relationship with China?  

China is now the world’s second largest economic power. “It goes without saying that both the Japanese and American leaders share the view that it is necessary to tighten the encirclement of China in terms of security,” says a close adviser to Abe 

Defense Secretary James Mattis reaffirmed on Feb. 3 the U.S. commitment to the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, which China continues to claim sovereignty over, stating that “Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty applies” to the islands. According to a high-ranking Kantei official, the government breathed a collective sigh of relief as Trump expressed the same position as Mattis and avoided the issue of increasing Japan’s share of the cost of stationing U.S. military forces in Japan.


However, there are many who are skeptical about U.S. diplomacy towards China. “Trump did not say a single word about China in his inaugural address,” said Ukeru Magosaki, former director of international intelligence for the Japanese Foreign Ministry. “Trump has deep ties with the Chinese business community as a businessman and has been receiving substantial loans. Although the U.S. has the biggest trade deficit with China, it is very dependent on its economy.”


As if to underscore this view, Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping in his first phone call with him that he would respect the “One China” policy under which the U.S. recognizes that Taiwan is part of China.


President Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who wields strong influence over her father, visited the Chinese Embassy to celebrate the Chinese Spring Festival on Feb. 1, and introduced her daughter Arabella Rose to Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai as her “interpreter.”


What is the real reason behind such performances staged by Trump prior to the prime minster’s trip to the U.S.?


“This substantiated the suspicion that the U.S. will work to improve ties with China,” according to the aforementioned governmental source. “There is no denying the possibility that the two countries will reach an agreement if China shows willingness to minimize the trade deficit and correct the depreciated yuan. I suspect that Trump’s diplomacy is aimed at exploiting Japan by staging golf and other types of performances as leverage to improve relations with China. Prime Minister Abe is wary of this. No matter how many times he was criticized for pursing a strategy that is tantamount to tributary diplomacy, he had to take the lead by embracing the U.S. and playing up the Japan-U.S. alliance.”


“I think the U.S. has decided that Chinese cooperation is essential in preventing North Korea’s implosion,” predicts Takashi Koyama, a diplomatic analyst specializing in Japan-U.S. relations. 


In a joint press conference with Prime Minister Abe on February 10, Trump responded to a Japanese reporter by saying, “I think we are on the process of getting along very well.  And I think that will also be very much of a benefit to Japan.”


Torn between pressure from two great powers, the U.S. and China, the golf diplomacy was apparently fraught with tension for Abe.

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