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Abe’s Diplomacy Tested / Volatile Trump puts PM on political tightrope

The Yomiuri Shimbun


This is the second installment of a series on the diplomatic challenges facing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.


U.S. President Donald Trump was as unpredictable as ever during his bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on July 8.


When Abe and other officials entered the room of an international conference hall in Hamburg, Germany, they were greeted by Trump and his wife Melania, who was wearing a bright red jacket. It is unusual for first ladies to attend meetings with foreign leaders, but Melania was present the entire time. “I wondered if they were aware of diplomatic protocols,” a Japanese official who attended the meeting said.


Shifting economic dialogue


Before the meeting, the Japanese delegation planned to prioritize North Korea in the discussions between the two leaders. However, the meeting’s trajectory was upended when Trump unexpectedly raised the issue of the United States’ trade deficit with Japan. U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who also attended the meeting, subsequently commented that automobile trade was particularly imbalanced and that nontariff barriers existed in the Japanese market.


Bearing in mind the Japan-U.S. economic dialogue between Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Abe replied, “I’d like to further discuss deepening the win-win economic relations between our countries.”


During negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, the United States cited Japan’s unique minicar standards and vehicle inspection system, among other issues, as nontariff barriers obstructing U.S. auto exports to Japan.


Earlier this summer, the Prime Minister’s Office assigned several prime ministerial secretaries from the Aso administration to handle the economic dialogue, including Deputy Vice Minister Kazuyuki Yamazaki, who was appointed deputy minister at the Foreign Ministry; Director General of the Economic and Industrial Policy Bureau Tadao Yanase, who was appointed vice minister for international affairs at the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry; and Vice Minister for International Affairs Masatsugu Asakawa, who retained his current post at the Finance Ministry.


The personnel reshuffle can be portrayed as “a shift in the Japan-U.S. economic dialogue” to assist Aso in his negotiations with the U.S. side, a senior government official said.


The Trump administration decided to withdraw from the TPP believing a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) would yield more favorable terms for the United States. One Japanese official said, “We must prepare for the possibility that the United States strongly petitions for a Japan-U.S. FTA,” underscoring a growing sense of caution in the government.


Inconsistent N. Korea policy


While many leaders have distanced themselves from the unconventional U.S. president, Abe said: “I can get along with someone open and frank like Trump.” He has already held three face-to-face meetings and seven telephone conversations with Trump since the president’s inauguration in January. A relationship of trust has emerged between the two, who call each other by their first names, with some claiming it to be the “best relationship ever” between leaders from the two countries.


However, the perils of a Trump presidency have again been on display recently.


One example is his inconsistent policy on North Korea. Trump slammed former U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” as a failure, and expressed a willingness to resort to military action, saying that all options are on the table. Following the U.S. military’s cruise missile attacks on Syria in April, many came to believe Trump might actually attack North Korea, a source involved in Japan-U.S. diplomacy said.


However, the administration’s stance has been obscured by negative remarks toward military action against North Korea by members of the President’s Cabinet. Trump himself has deepened the confusion by claiming he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un under appropriate conditions.


North Korea likely took notice of these circumstances ahead of its intercontinental ballistic missile launch on July 4. Although Trump called on Chinese President Xi Jinping to strengthen economic pressure on North Korea at a U.S.-China bilateral meeting on July 8, his demands appear to have failed. “The Trump administration lacks sound diplomatic and security policies, which ensnares them in policy incoherence,” a senior Japanese government official said.


Cold look at Trump


Trump has been harshly criticized for the Russia scandals plaguing his administration, among other issues. Amid such circumstances, he has doubled down on his inward-oriented “America first” policy by withdrawing from the TPP and the Paris Agreement, the international framework for combating global warming.


Abe often plays an intermediary role between other foreign leaders and Trump, who is often isolated at international conferences, such as the Group of Seven summit held last May. There is concern that this coolness toward Trump could be redirected at Abe. Can Abe leverage his good relations with Trump to change the president’s inward-looking inclinations?


The prime minister’s role is crucial.

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