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Editorial: Will Japan’s special treatment of President Trump serve its interests?

U.S. President Donald Trump, who is visiting Japan as a state guest, held talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, met with Emperor Naruhito and attended a banquet at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on May 27.

At the summit, Abe and Trump agreed to accelerate discussions on Japan-U.S. trade talks that are a focal point in bilateral ties and closely coordinated their views on North Korean matters.


Despite a lack of major progress on policy issues, Japan has given unprecedented treatment to the U.S. president, who is in Japan as the first state guest since the beginning of the Reiwa era following the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito.


While playing golf together, a smiling Abe and Trump took a selfie. President Trump also watched sumo bouts and presented the inaugural U.S. President’s Cup to tournament winner Asanoyama. For their dinner meeting, Abe invited Trump to a Japanese-style charcoal grill restaurant to treat the president to traditional Japanese food.


The Japan-U.S. alliance is the core of Japan’s diplomacy. There are certainly occasions in which Japan requires U.S. influence to deal with challenges. Tokyo sometimes needs to give exceptional treatment to a U.S. president to gain their favor. However, such a practice is justifiable only when Japan has to do so to protect its own national interests. This means maintaining stable international order and protecting free and fair trade. One cannot help but wonder whether Japan’s special treatment of President Trump during his current visit was needed to protect Japan’s national interests.


With regard to Japan-U.S. trade talks, President Trump tweeted after a golf session that “much will wait until after their (Japan’s) July (House of Councillors) elections…”


Washington is demanding that Tokyo eliminate tariffs on U.S. agricultural products at an early date. However, if the two countries were to reach agreement on the issue before the upper house race, it would adversely affect the governing bloc’s chances of winning the election.


Trump’s tweet apparently reflects the Abe government’s desire to avoid negotiations in which Tokyo would be forced to make concessions before the election.


However, this indicates that the Abe administration is excessively worried about its own gains and losses. Delaying an agreement on trade talks until after the election may benefit the Abe government but not necessarily contribute to Japan’s national interests. Such a move deserves criticism that the administration is blindfolding voters.


If Abe and Trump struck such a deal, Trump will certainly demand something from Japan in return. It would be no surprise if Trump steps up his demands on Tokyo as the next U.S. presidential election is drawing near.


President Trump expressed hope that Tokyo and Washington will reach agreement in bilateral trade talks in August. However, Japan is not obliged to make easy compromises to the United States. It is the Trump administration that has withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement and put the country at a disadvantage.


There were previously tough trade negotiations between the two countries. In the 1990s, Japan rejected Washington’s demands that Tokyo set a numerical target for exports of automobile parts to the U.S. Then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa invited then President Bill Clinton to dinner during his visit to Japan and persuaded him to abandon the demand.


The Trump government is also suggesting that it will require Japan to set a numerical target for exports of automobiles to the country. The prime minister should patiently convince the U.S. president of the value of free trade. Even if Japan demonstrates its good relations with the United States, the Abe government cannot gain diplomatic points if the international community thinks Tokyo is just following Washington.


In their latest summit, Abe and Trump also discussed North Korean issues. It is worrisome that Trump has suggested that he does not see Pyongyang’s recent launches of short-range ballistic missiles as a problem.


No progress has been made in relations between the United States and North Korea since their bilateral summit in Hanoi broke down in February. Trump apparently seeks to continue dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to evade criticism that the summit ended in failure.


However, it is clear that North Korea’s launches of short-range ballistic missiles constitute a violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution banning Pyongyang from firing any kind of ballistic missiles. Furthermore, North Korean short-range ballistic missiles pose a serious threat to Japan.


The prime minister emphasized that Japan and the United States completely agree on their policy toward North Korea. However, questions remain as to whether the two countries share the view that North Korea’s short-range ballistic missiles pose a direct threat to Japan.


Prime Minister Abe can use mutual trust that he has nurtured with President Trump to address other policy issues, such as the concentration of U.S. bases in Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa.


The local community is strongly opposed to the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the prefectural city of Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago, also in Okinawa.


Some places where reclamation work is underway off Henoko have been found to have weak foundations. The prime minister should hold frank talks with Trump to reflect the Okinawa community’s intentions over the project.


The United States’ influence on the international community has further declined under the Trump administration that is pursuing an “America First” policy. Japan needs to consider how to depart from its heavy reliance on the United States and broaden its diplomacy while maintaining the Japan-U.S. alliance.


President Trump is the first state guest that Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako have welcomed since His Majesty ascended to the Imperial Throne on May 1. Diplomacy that the Imperial Family conducts is important in that it can deepen friendly relations with other countries regardless of their size.


Whether it was appropriate for Japan to select Trump as its first state guest in the Reiwa era because it views the Japan-U.S. alliance as its most important pact will continue to be called into question.


Japan should consider how to protect its national interests and develop Japan-U.S. relations from a long-term perspective.

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