After his latest meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on June 7, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated that Japan’s position is “perfectly in alignment” with the United States. “Japan and the United States are always together,” he stated.
But Japan could end up lagging behind the radical changes occurring in the landscape of international relations if Abe continues to maintain a foreign policy agenda fully dependent on the Trump White House.
Abe traveled to the United States in April for a summit with Trump. This time, he made the trip across the Pacific to coordinate the North Korea policies of the two governments prior to Trump’s historic talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to be held in Singapore on June 12, the first-ever meeting between the sitting leaders of the two countries.
In a joint news conference after his meeting with Abe, Trump said talks are being held with the intention to “sign an agreement” to bring a formal end to the Korean War. He also said his administration will not lift economic sanctions against North Korea for the time being, but there is little doubt that the Trump White House has set out to win over North Korea.
It is undoubtedly important for the leaders of Japan and the United States to work closely together on key regional security issues. Unless it maps out its own diplomatic strategy and builds stable relations with its neighbors, however, Japan would be at the mercy of Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy.
In the joint news conference, Abe expressed his hopes of meeting with Kim, the chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party.
Abe has apparently tweaked his strategy to deal with the Kim regime in response to Trump’s eagerness to start dialogue with Pyongyang.
The Abe administration has been emphasizing the security threat posed by North Korea’s arms programs in its efforts to change the nation’s defense policy and beef up its defense capabilities.
But Abe has found himself left out as he has remained fixated on a U.S.-oriented foreign policy agenda and kept his strategy for dealing with North Korea focused almost exclusively on pressure on the Kim regime.
The Abe administration now needs to take a hard look at the effectiveness and limitations of its diplomatic approach and hammer out a new strategy firmly tethered to the new reality.
It has yet to lay out even a clear vision for the future of East Asia. If Tokyo constantly changes its diplomatic posture in response to Washington’s actions, it will lose its credibility as a player with a direct interest in promoting peace and stability in the region.
Abe’s foreign policy stance has been wildly swayed by the Trump administration’s ever-changing positions.
He led the international campaign to place “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang, arguing that “talks for talks” are meaningless. After Trump agreed to talks with Kim, however, Abe changed his stance completely and praised Trump’s “courage.”
What is really surprising was that Abe became the only leader of a nation to voice “support” to Trump’s decision to cancel his summit with Kim. That probably reflected his true feelings.
After Trump put the summit back on track, however, Abe expressed strong hopes the meeting would go ahead. We can only describe the way he has responded to the flurry of decisions made by Trump as undisciplined and inconsistent.
This is the grim reality of the relationship between the two countries, which Abe has repeatedly claimed are “100 percent together.”
Trump has shown a strong proclivity to link security and economic issues. He has made it clear that reducing the massive U.S. trade deficit with Japan is a key goal for his foreign policy agenda and is pressing Tokyo to purchase huge amounts of U.S.-made weapons and other American products.
If Tokyo becomes even more dependent on Washington in tackling challenges related to North Korea, it will only find itself in a weak position in bilateral talks over trade issues.
Abe should confront and act on the obvious fact that Japan cannot protect its own interests by simply following the United States.