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Commentary: Abe can work with Trump, despite the difficulties

By Hitoshi Tanaka




As Donald Trump kicks off his first trip to Asia as U.S. president with a visit to Japan on Nov. 5-7, the world will be watching closely for signs as to how his administration might develop its engagement with the region. For Japan, three key issues are likely to dominate the agenda: the long-term future of U.S. leadership in the region, North Korea and economic cooperation. 


The Japanese public is deeply ambivalent toward Trump. On the one hand, cooperative relations between the U.S. president and Japanese prime minister are highly valued. U.S. leadership in Asia since the end of the Second World War promoted the security and regional stability which underline Japan’s prosperity. The U.S.-Japan alliance continues to be a critical public good for the security of the region.


On the other hand, there is an awkward sentiment toward Trump. There is an acute awareness that he is undermining the basis of U.S. democracy, moving U.S. foreign policy away from multilateralism and toward isolationism, and undermining the liberal international order which the U.S. worked so hard to establish and maintain over the last seven decades. Since taking office Trump has already withdrawn the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Agreement on climate change. He has also indicated his intention to scrap the Iran nuclear deal and to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS).


In Tokyo, anxiety over the future of the regional order is palpable. Given Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy and his “America First” mantra, some Japanese observers fear he may consider a grand bargain with China without regard for maintenance of the liberal international order or the interests of U.S. allies and partners in the region.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, maintains a warm personal relationship with Trump. He was the first world leader to meet with Trump after his election in November 2016 while still president-elect. Abe was also invited to Washington and Mar-a-Lago in February for a bilateral summit and golf diplomacy. Abe’s friendly relationship contrasts sharply with that of some other leaders, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, who have been openly critical of Trump’s policies.


Shared prosperity


This gives Abe a unique opportunity to engage in frank but friendly discussions with Trump on the importance of U.S. leadership. As Japan’s population and domestic demand decreases, it will need to rely on external demand to sustain its economy. Japan’s economic relationships will need to be diversified around to region with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and India, but must also include deepened relations with China too. While Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed his objective at the Chinese National Congress last month to develop China into a great socialist power by 2050, coordinated U.S.-Japan engagement will be critical in order to constructively channel China’s rising power. If the U.S. drifts further into isolationism, Japan’s leverage to engage positively with China and the region’s long-term stability and shared prosperity will be diminished.


More immediately, the situation with North Korea has become an urgent concern. Speculation is rife that Trump may be inclined to resort to military options in order to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. While Abe has supported Trump in taking a tough line with North Korea, he would be wise to press home the point that military options would not only be unreliable in taking out North Korea’s nuclear facilities, many of which are protected in underground strongholds, but also risk sparking a full-scale war with devastating loss of life for civilians in South Korea and Japan.


Decades of international efforts to denuclearize North Korea have repeatedly ended in frustration. In order to open the door to credible negotiations with North Korea, intensified cooperation is needed between the U.S., Japan, China and South Korea. In particular, three ingredients are required from these four key stakeholders. First, they must coordinate pressure on North Korea with the aim of bringing it back to the negotiating table. Second, they must engage in joint contingency planning to prepare for a worst-case collapse scenario on the peninsula, including quickly tracking down nuclear weapons and dealing with potential refugee flows. And third, coordinated diplomatic signalling is needed to communicate to North Korea that it will be allowed to survive if it gives up its nuclear weapons, but if it refuses, pressure through sanctions will continue to be intensified.


On the economic cooperation front, Trump may raise the possibility of starting negotiations on a bilateral trade agreement with Japan with an emphasis cutting the US trade deficit. While Japan acknowledges the U.S. position on trade deficits, it is not ready for a bilateral FTA at this juncture. Under President Barack Obama, it was the U.S. which led the way on forging a high-level multilateral trade deal through the TPP.


Subsequently, Japan made the necessary efforts and overcame a number of tricky domestic hurdles in order to sign onto the agreement. If the Trump administration is interested in a trade agreement with Japan, it would be best if the U.S. returned to the TPP. Beyond focusing on a trade deal, Trump and Abe may more productively focus on investment and infrastructure cooperation, areas which the Trump administration has emphasized as important to U.S. interests and where there is greater scope for breakthroughs. 


As the Trump challenge continues undermine confidence in the future of U.S. regional leadership, many Japanese people hope Abe will show his pragmatic side and find a way to work with Trump. In this way the two leaders can bolster the U.S.-Japan alliance as well as the liberal international order which underwrites our shared stability and prosperity.



Hitoshi Tanaka, former deputy minister for foreign affairs and a key adviser to then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, is chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at Japan Research Institute.

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