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Abe’s diplomacy for Osaka G20 (1) / Hopes pinned on intimate relations with Trump

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pursuing vigorous diplomacy in the run-up to hosting the Group of 20 summit meeting in Osaka in June, one of this year’s biggest diplomatic events. This series takes a look into future challenges in his diplomacy.


At the start of U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting with Abe on April 26, he told members of the press that while flying back from a convention in Indiana, he was told that bad weather was threatening to delay his landing by about an hour.


With Abe next to him, Trump recalled he had said, “I hope you don’t have to do that, because we can’t keep this great gentleman waiting.”


It was the 10th occasion the two leaders have met in person. That day, Abe and his wife, Akie, were invited to a White House dinner, which doubled as a birthday celebration for Trump’s wife, Melania. The next day, Trump and Abe golfed together at a course on the outskirts of Washington, their fourth time golfing together.


During this visit to the United States, Abe once again showcased the close relationship he has developed with Trump, something that is the envy of leaders from other countries.

“Whether we meet in person or talk on the phone, we can say whatever we want to say to each other,” Abe has said of his intimate relationship with Trump.


Some officials at the Foreign Ministry consider relations between Abe and Trump even better than the positive ties between Yasuhiro Nakasone and Ronald Reagan and between Junichiro Koizumi and George W. Bush.


The government will welcome Trump as a state guest from May 25 to 28, during which the U.S. president is scheduled to meet the new Emperor as the first foreign head of state to do so. Moreover, at the April 26 meeting, Trump told Abe that he will visit Japan again on June 28-29 for the G20 meeting in Osaka.


In the history of the relations between the two countries, it is unprecedented for a U.S. president to have visited Japan twice in a period of about a month.


Prior to his visit to the United States, Abe traveled to some European countries, for such purposes as laying the groundwork for securing other nations’ cooperation for the G20 to make it easier for Trump, who does not prefer multilateral talks, to take part in the event.


Abe took this approach because at the Group of Seven summit meeting in Canada last June, Trump was sharply at odds with his European counterparts over trade issues. Abe worked as a go-between and managed to help compile the summit communique.


The prime minister aims to take full advantage of his relationship with Trump at the G20 meeting. There are expectations within the government and the ruling parties that if Abe is able to showcase his leadership on the world stage while working with Trump, it can add momentum to the ruling parties for this summer’s House of Councillors election.


However, it won’t be easy for Abe to maintain favorable relations with Trump.


During the first minutes of the April 26 meeting with Abe, Trump sent mixed messages of intimacy and harshness.


“Japan puts very massive tariffs on … our agriculture,” he said. “And we want to get rid of those tariffs. Because we don’t tariff their cars.”


Abe later corrected Trump during the meeting: “With regard to the tariffs on autos, Japan has put no tariffs on American autos. But, in contrast, the United States has put on the 2.5 percent tariff on the Japanese autos.”


Trump harbors deep dissatisfaction over the trade imbalance with Japan. On top of this, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal among Japan, Australia and nine other nations has gone into effect, and so has an economic partnership agreement between Japan and the European Union.


These deals have made U.S. products such as beef less competitive in Japan, which could negatively impact Trump’s support base in places such as agricultural states in the Midwest.

When the new round of trade talks between Japan and the United States gets fully underway, Abe’s relationship with Trump could face serious challenges.


Close ties perhaps mask anxiety


By Toshihiro Nakayama / Keio University professor


The current Japan-U.S. relationship is the best it could possibly be. No other leader than Abe has been able to jump into Trump’s arms.

If leaders develop intimate relations with Trump, who receives much criticism and praise, they could face a backlash from their people. However, no such strong criticism has surfaced in Japan. The public apparently believes that getting along with the United States is the best possible option, with the potential threat of China’s increasing militarization in mind.


International politics is not pretty. It was the American people who chose Trump, not the Japanese. Building an optimal relationship with the U.S. president aligns with Japan’s national interests.


However, Trump shows faltering aspects in his interest in Northeast Asia and understanding of the Japan-U.S. alliance.


Abe is excessively responding to Trump probably because this is the flip side of his anxiety over the U.S. president.

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