Gaku Shimada, Nikkei Staff Writer
TOKYO — “I can build a relationship with this man,” Shinzo Abe confidently told his aides after meeting U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower on Nov. 17, 2016. “I can’t say that I was able to do so with President Obama. But with Trump, I might be able to talk quite candidly.”
After the meeting — held just nine days after Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton — the president-elect accompanied Abe on the elevator ride down from the penthouse to the marble-and-gold entrance. The respectful gesture was a pleasant surprise for the Japanese prime minister, who had heard horror stories about the real estate mogul’s haughty behavior.
The initial goal for the Japanese side was to persuade Trump to rethink his campaign pledge to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade agreement championed by his predecessor. Yet after careful analysis of Trump’s campaign speeches, which included advice from psychologists, Team Japan concluded that Trump is a person who, when his ideas are denied outright, becomes even more wedded to them.
With this in mind, Abe altered his goals for the first meetup. No longer was it about the TPP. The new objective was to build a personal relationship with America’s billionaire president. For Abe, this was crucial given that the U.S.-Japan relationship covering economics, security and trade has served as the single most important bilateral relationship for Tokyo since the end of World War II. Its importance has grown to almost existential levels amid the rising power of China and the nuclear threat from North Korea.
When Trump withdrew from the TPP on his first full day in office, some critics said this represented a failure of Abe’s diplomatic strategy. But the Japanese leader’s decision to establish personal ties within days of the election allowed him to secure something else: Trump’s confidence.
“It mattered that Trump forged a good relationship with Abe,” said Bruce Jones, vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. The ties between the two leaders allowed U.S. career diplomats to craft a policy that Trump would have rejected as a candidate: an Asian strategy rooted in the alliance with Japan, Jones said. “Abe deserves the credit for that.”
A decade ago, it made little sense to analyze Japan’s diplomatic strategy. Between 2007 and 2011 there were six prime ministers in five years; by the time a strategy was formed, the leader would be on his way out. Abe, now in the sixth year of his tenure, is the second-longest serving leader of a Group of Seven country after German Chancellor Angela Merkel. While he is better known internationally for “Abenomics” and his desire to change Japan’s pacifist constitution, he is pursuing an active foreign policy. Abe’s office boasts that he has visited 76 countries and regions in his term — the most ever for a Japanese prime minister.
He is hardly the first Japanese leader to seek strong ties with Washington, but Abe has found himself in the unusual position of championing traditional U.S. goals, such as free trade, without the support of the American president. And he is using his relationship with Trump to make sure the “America first” president remains committed to Asia.
“While the elements of Abe’s foreign policy are in line with previous governments, his strategy aims to change the roots of Japanese foreign policy,” said Yuichi Hosoya, a professor at Japan’s Keio University. “The traditional role for Japan was to support America’s leadership through the Japan-U.S. alliance. Now that President Trump has abandoned America’s role as global leader, Japan is trying to present principles and play a leadership role in the democratic world.”
Abe’s ability to deal with Trump has led other world leaders to turn to him for advice, including Merkel. “Forget the press coverage,” Abe told the German chancellor. “Meet him without too much prejudice.”
Trump himself has come calling, too, seeking Abe’s advice about his personal experience in dealing with the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. During their frequent telephone conversations — Abe’s office puts the tally at 17 — Trump has often asked, “What do you think, Shinzo?”
Abe is hoping to use this relationship to achieve longer-term political objectives — including pulling the U.S. back into the TPP. Watching Trump tear up the U.S. commitment to the trade agreement was a blow to Abe, who then threw himself behind the strategy of getting the remaining 11 countries on board to start the “TPP 11” — and then wait for the Americans to return. If Japan was envisioning an economic framework that would unite its participants to stand against China, Abe reasoned, it would have little impact unless the framework included the U.S.
Last November, when trying to convince Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to agree to the TPP 11 in Danang, Vietnam, Abe stressed that the TPP was not just a trade agreement. “This will be the foundation on which we strengthen the alliance of free nations,” he said.
The point was driven home as the 11 TPP members approved the final details of the pact on Jan. 23. “We will continue to explain the importance of the TPP to the U.S., and we hope they rejoin the pact,” said Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s minister for economic revitalization.
Just two days after the TPP-11 agreement was announced, however, Trump opened the door to a U.S. return to TPP — a surprising reversal for the U.S. president, who placed opposition to TPP and other multilateral trade deals at the center of his 2016 campaign.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Trump said the U.S. would rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership if “we made a much better deal than we had.”
“I would do TPP if we were able to make a substantially better deal,” he said in an interview with CNBC.
Without the U.S., Abe thinks the global order on trade will be set by China — and Japan’s role will sink. This is why Abe puts so much emphasis on maintaining close relations with Trump, even to the astonishment of some European leaders.
Placing such a heavy bet on Trump carries risks for Abe, however. Polls taken last summer show the Japanese public has little confidence in the U.S. president. Trump’s erratic statements — particularly his bellicose tweets about North Korea — have unnerved allies and the public. And Abe’s goal of bringing the U.S. back into the TPP appears to be a long shot, though Trump’s tough stance may be wavering.
Birth of the Diplomat
Abe learned about the politics of personal chemistry firsthand. In 1982, he became a secretary to his father, then-Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe.
Abe would accompany his father on diplomatic visits with the prime minister at the time, the flamboyant Yasuhiro Nakasone. Watching Nakasone and U.S. President Ronald Reagan calling each other by their first names — “Ron” and “Yasu” — taught Abe that personal trust was the key to diplomacy. He still remembers those lessons today; unlike other world leaders, Abe has refrained from publicly criticizing Trump.
The younger Abe’s first eye-opening experience in diplomacy came in September 2002, when as deputy chief cabinet secretary, he accompanied Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Pyongyang, North Korea, a country Japan does not have diplomatic relations with.
In the high-profile talks with Koizumi, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted that North Korean agents had abducted Japanese citizens, agreeing to return five of them to Japan, but only temporarily. But Abe refused to return them to North Korea, as had been agreed.
“In protecting Japan, we cannot rely on anyone else. That is the job of Japanese politicians,” he said at the time.
Abe’s next eye-opener came in 2009 when the Liberal Democratic Party, to which Abe belongs, lost a lower-house election and fell out of power. The former Democratic Party of Japan, headed by Yukio Hatoyama, took the reins of the government and immediately pursued a new diplomatic stance, which called for positioning Japan equally between the U.S. and China.
Despite distancing itself from Washington, Japan’s relationship with China did not improve. On the contrary, it sank to perhaps the lowest levels in the post-WWII period as tensions over the East China Sea led to a halt in all diplomatic exchanges.
One reason China was reluctant to compromise with Japan was spurred by its knowledge that Japan and the U.S. were not getting along. For Abe, then an opposition lawmaker, it served as a reminder of the significance of the Japan-U.S. relationship. He vowed not to repeat the clumsy diplomacy of the DPJ.
Abe set up Sosei Nippon, a multiparty group of conservative Diet members, in 2010. The group, which aims to reconstruct diplomacy as well as amend the pacifist constitution, became a movement that provided a foothold for Abe to return to power as prime minister.
Mining the security diamond
The question at the center of Abe’s foreign policy is how Japan should confront the rapid rise of China. “There has not been a time in history when two great rivals coexisted in East Asia,” said a close Abe aide. “Finding a way to coexist with China will be a great challenge for Japan’s diplomacy.”
In a 2012 essay, “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” Abe argued that Japan should try to stabilize the Pacific region in cooperation with Australia and India, in addition to relying on its traditional U.S. alliance. This concept, which was fleshed out by Japanese diplomats, recently became known as the “Indo-Pacific Strategy.”
During his November tour of Asia, Trump repeatedly talked about an “Indo-Pacific Strategy” — thrilling senior officials at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Looking back on postwar U.S.-Japan relations, there has never been a case of a U.S. president fully adopting a Japan-devised strategy,” a Japanese diplomat enthused.
Japanese officials say Trump’s awareness of the concept was no accident. Ahead of the president’s visit to Japan, the Japanese government decided that one goal of the meetings would be to convince the increasingly inward-looking U.S. to stay committed to Asia. Taking into account that Trump had yet to put together an Asian strategy, Abe instructed his diplomats to brief U.S. officials about his Indo-Pacific Strategy, hoping it would reach Trump’s ears.
Some Japanese officials were hesitant to hand over their treasured plan, but Abe insisted that it would only help. “You don’t need to worry about who gets credit for the idea. The impact will be far greater if it comes from Trump-san’s mouth,” he said.
“If Shinzo is for it, I am fine with it, too,” Trump reportedly said of the strategy. To what extent Trump understands and embraces the approach is questionable, considering that little progress has been made since the Asia tour finished.
Yet even as he champions a plan to contain China, Abe is also working on improving ties with its leader, Xi. Backed by his confidence in the relationship with Trump and his own landslide victory in the October general election, Abe is planning reciprocal visits with Xi starting this year.
Abe wants the mutual visits to lead to a “fifth political document.” Starting with the first document in 1972, when Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited Beijing to open diplomatic relations, Japan and China have exchanged a political document each time their relationship came to a turning point.
Abe began making conciliatory gestures toward Beijing last year, including by appearing cooperative toward the $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative promoted by Xi. He is still testing the waters to see whether he can forge a relationship of trust with the Chinese leader.
But Abe is also worried about Trump’s repeated statements that he has a friendly feeling toward Xi. As long as the personal relationship with Trump is the basis of the U.S.-Japan relationship, it is easy for China to reduce Japan’s influence: Just drive a wedge between the two allies.
So it was only natural that Abe asked Trump what he thought of the Chinese leader when they played golf at the famed Kasumigaseki Country Club in November last year. “I get along really well with President Xi,” Trump answered.
“Mr. Trump did not appear to be lying,” Abe told aides later. “But I just can’t understand why Trump and Xi Jinping could have good chemistry.”
While worrying about the possibility of the U.S. and China moving further toward each other, Abe also knows that the North Korea issue is a card in Japan’s pocket to exert influence over the relationship between Washington and Beijing. Abe has told Trump that the key to keeping Pyongyang in check is to make China play a decisive role.
Officials at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs say Abe’s statements have caused Trump to have excessive expectations of what China can do to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
China would never impose an oil embargo on North Korea, for instance, if it were only Japan calling for it. Only a fear of hurting relations with Washington would make Beijing consider such a risky move.
Some in the U.S. have said they wish Abe could use his good relations with Trump to encourage the president to cool down some of his rhetoric about North Korea.
“I wish Prime Minister Abe would tell President Trump that the U.S. shouldn’t push North Korea to such an extent that the country will resort to desperate action,” one State Department official said. “He won’t listen to us, that’s for sure.”