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Honeymoon between Japan, U.S. leaders stands out

By Kenji Minemura, Shigeki Tosa in Washington; Kotaro Ono in Tokyo


During their teleconference on Oct. 4, President Donald Trump reportedly asked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: “Shinzo, what do you think of Rex’s (Secretary of State Tillerson’s) statement in Beijing?” This was disclosed by Japanese and U.S. government sources.


Tillerson attempted to make contact with North Korea in late September to “sound out” whether Kim was prepared to engage in dialogue. Trump was irked by this. He tweeted on Oct. 1: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…” This revealed the policy differences between Trump and Tillerson.


Abe side-stepped commenting on Tillerson’s statement, and said: “Now is not the time for dialogue. The important thing is to continue to apply pressure.”


A U.S. government source disclosed that “the President sometimes discusses with Prime Minister Abe things that he would not tell his close confidants.”


Trump criticized Japan repeatedly during the U.S. presidential election campaign. For instance, he said: “If we are attacked, Japan does not have to do anything. They can relax at home and watch their Sony TVs.”


However, Abe called up Trump right away to congratulate him after the presidential election. He was the first world leader to visit Trump Tower in New York to meet with him. U.S. Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty, who was present at the meeting, recalls that “Prime Minister Abe made an excellent impression on the President.”


After Trump’s inauguration, the two leaders have been in unusually close contact. They have had four summit meetings and at least 16 known teleconferences. They have always talked with each other every time North Korea engaged in a provocation involving a nuclear test or missile development.


Trump will make his first visit to Japan on Nov. 5. He is also scheduled to participate in the ASEAN Summit and other international conferences after the visit. According to an aide of Abe’s, Trump asked the Prime Minister at their summit meeting in late September if he should meet with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Abe said: “It would be better to meet with him.” Trump reportedly responded: “Okay, if that’s what you say, Shinzo, I will meet with him.”


Both Japanese and American experts are in agreement that it is a good thing for the two leaders to have a strong personal relationship of trust. They have also demonstrated solidarity in taking a tough stance against North Korea. However, a former senior U.S. government official has this advice for Japan: “President Trump’s behavior is unpredictable. It is not good to expect too much of a single person.”


Japan’s security environment is behind the honeymoon between Abe and Trump and the importance Abe attaches to building a personal relationship of trust with him.


Abe visited the U.S. to hold a bilateral summit in February. According to a source on Japan-U.S. diplomacy, he was able to draw the following statement from Trump at their dinner in Mar-a-Lago, Florida: “You regard North Korea as the short-term threat and China as a potential mid- and long-term threat. I agree with you.”


With North Korea persisting in its missile launches and nuclear tests and China pursuing its maritime push, it was necessary to make Trump understand that the U.S. is indispensable for Japan, which is facing these two neighbors.


In addition to demonstrating the strong bonds between the two leaders, the Japanese government is focusing on making sure that Trump’s first declaration of his Asia policy to the international community is compatible with Japan’s strategy during his visit to Japan. The key concept in its behind-the-scenes coordination with the U.S. side was the doctrine of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”


This is a strategy aimed at building an open international order led by the U.S., India, Japan, Australia, and other allies in the Indian and Pacific Oceans based on the freedom of navigation, rule of law, reciprocal trade, and other concepts.


In a speech in October, Secretary Tillerson also stated: “As we look to the next 100 years, it is vital that the Indo-Pacific… continue to be free and open.” He also said that Japan and Australia are “very important and strong democracies.”


The Kantei instructed the bureaucrats to lobby the U.S. to make Japan the first country Trump visits on his Asia trip. They were successful. Abe reportedly told his aides with great confidence: “It is good that we will be able to discuss what we will say from now on before he visits the other Asian countries, and there will probably be feedback (from Trump) after his trip to the region.”


Trust built at meeting last fall


The Japanese government source explained that Abe was able to build such a relationship with Trump because amid the strong negative opinion of Trump both in the U.S. and internationally, he went to meet with him straight away last November before his inauguration and explained to him his knowledge of diplomacy and experience as a politician, thus winning his trust. After this meeting, Abe told his aides: “He was a different man from the one we know from the election campaign. He was meticulous and a good listener.”


A senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official pointed out that it is “unprecedented” for a U.S. president to be mentored by a Japanese prime minister on diplomacy in the presence of senior White House officials. A certain source on Japan-U.S. diplomacy even refers to Abe as the “presidential assistant for Asian affairs” since the position of assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs remains vacant in the Trump administration.


The UK, which has a traditional special relationship with the U.S., is astonished by the Abe-Trump relationship. It has asked the Japanese government: “What present did you give (to Trump)?”


Schisms in the U.S. administration


While Abe and Trump are in total agreement on applying stronger pressure on North Korea, the same cannot be said for the U.S. administration. Secretary Tillerson, for instance, advocates a “solution through dialogue.” With rumors circulating on the discord between Tillerson and Trump, single-minded summitry with Trump is also risky.


Abe has declared “one hundred percent support” for Trump’s policy to “put all options on the table” in dealing with the North Korea issue. He is expected to say the same at his summit meeting with Trump on Nov. 6. However, Japan has not been able to come up with any concrete measures aside from applying pressure on North Korea. The truth is it is dependent on the U.S. for its North Korea policy.


Amid this situation, the above source on Japan-U.S. diplomacy said that the U.S. forces and the Self-Defense Forces are holding lively discussions about a contingency on the Korean Peninsula. According to the U.S. media, the U.S. Congressional Research Service recently estimated that even without a nuclear attack, a Korean war would result in up to 300,000 casualties. If the confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea leads to a military conflict, there is now a real possibility that Japan would be “embroiled” in the conflict.


On the other hand, certain Japanese government officials are also concerned that if Trump moves toward making a “deal” with China, which exercises influence over North Korea, and shifts to a policy of U.S.-DPRK dialogue, Japan might be “abandoned.”


Those officials are also wary of what Trump might do in regard to trade issues. While Trump promotes bilateral trade negotiations advantageous to the U.S., Japan prioritizes multilateral frameworks such as the TPP and is not amenable to engaging in bilateral talks. However, the U.S. trade deficit with Japan is the second largest after China. Trump attaches great importance to the deficit, and there are persistent calls in the U.S. for the liberalization of the Japanese market for beef, autos, and other products. It is possible that Trump might directly press Abe to conclude a free trade agreement (FTA).


As a “bulwark” to prevent the two leaders from clashing on trade issues, Japan proposed at the Abe-Trump summit in February the establishment of the Japan-U.S. Economic Dialogue led by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Vice President Mike Pence. However, Pence showed a strong interest in a bilateral FTA at the second meeting held in October.


With Trump having difficulty making good on his campaign pledges, such as the corporate tax cut, the above Foreign Ministry official is wary that “his only option is to show achievements in diplomacy and he might plead for help from Japan.”


The Japan-U.S. relationship in the Trump era is facing the problem of how to deal with these risks.


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