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Editorial: The deferred test of Abe-Trump ties

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday concurred on the importance of the two countries’ security alliance and agreed to expedite bilateral trade talks to quickly achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. Abe said Trump endorsed his plan to pursue a meeting “without precondition” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and that he confirmed with Trump that Tokyo and Washington are on the same page in dealing with Pyongyang.


Monday’s summit between Abe and Trump was their 11th as the top leaders of Japan and the United States. It followed the talks the two leaders held in Washington in late April, and they are scheduled to meet again in late June on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit that Abe hosts in Osaka. Trump’s four-day visit as a state guest through Tuesday has come as a reminder of the strong rapport that Abe has built up with the U.S. president — they spent most of Sunday together, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, playing golf in the morning and then watching the final day of the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, where Trump presented the President’s Cup to the winner of the tournament.


It is widely believed that the close personal relationship between the two leaders has contributed to the stability of Japan-U.S. ties. In his second visit to Japan as U.S. president, Trump became the first foreign guest to have an audience with Emperor Naruhito since his enthronement at the beginning of this month. On the final day of the visit, Trump and Abe are scheduled to together board the Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter carrier Kaga at the MSDF base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture — which is hoped to serve to demonstrate the solid security alliance between the two countries.


Yet, the fact that the Abe-Trump summit did not produce a joint statement — which had been decided as the two governments prepared for their talks — indicated a lack of concrete progress on pending issues between Japan and the U.S., in particular their bilateral trade negotiations. As Trump tweeted prior to his meeting with Abe, any conclusion of the trade talks had been pushed back till after the Upper House election in July. It was reported that Trump, who even touched on the possibility that a trade deal might be struck as early as this month when he last met Abe in April, may have taken Japan’s domestic political considerations into account.


At the same time, Trump said that, “we will be announcing some things probably in August that will be very good for both countries” at the outset of his Monday meeting with Abe, indicating his willingness to conclude the trade talks with Japan soon after the July election. It is believed that Trump wants to strike a deal with Japan as a major achievement of his trade agenda that he hopes to sell to voters in his bid for re-election in 2020 — the campaign for which will come into full swing this fall. That will pose a big challenge for the Abe administration, since it was reported that in the working-level talks held last week a huge gap remained between the two countries over key issues such as Japan’s tariffs on agricultural imports and U.S. tariffs on automobiles.


Abe is seen as one of the few world leaders in whom the unpredictable Trump holds personal trust since taking office in 2017. However, many aspects of the Trump administration’s policies and actions with his “America First” agenda, such as its withdrawal from multinational frameworks, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris agreement on combating climate change, as well as its emphasis on bilateral trade negotiations in which it seeks to gain concessions from other countries under the threat of unilateral sanctions such as higher tariffs, run counter to Japan’s focus on multilateral free trade systems. The personal relationship that Abe has cultivated with Trump — since paying him a visit in New York right after he won the November 2016 U.S. presidential election — does not appear to have helped to reverse such policies of the administration.


Not only has Japan agreed to hold the bilateral trade negotiations with the U.S. — which Tokyo earlier hesitated due to its emphasis on the multilateral approach to trade issues — effectively under the threat of higher U.S. tariffs on automobiles and automotive parts imports, but the intensifying trade frictions between the U.S. and China — the world’s two largest economies — are beginning to hurt Japan’s economy as the escalating tit-for-tat exchange of punitive tariffs by Washington and Beijing slows down the Chinese economy and casts dark clouds over global demand.


The personal rapport between Abe and Trump may have stabilized the relationship between Japan and the U.S. But their close ties will be tested if Abe, as chair of this year’s Group of Twenty summit, has to challenge Trump in seeking to uphold and strengthen the multilateral free trade regimes and in maintaining Japan’ position in the trade talks with the U.S.

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