BY JESSE JOHNSON, ERIC JOHNSTON AND SATOSHI SUGIYAMA
OSAKA – As a storm bore down on Osaka on Thursday, bringing heavy rains to the city ahead of the Group of 20 summit, another was on its way — straight from Washington.
Osaka was gearing up for the two-day gathering of world leaders that kicks off Friday, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hoping for a conference with as few hitches as possible. But even before the summit got underway, an obstacle to that goal emerged in the form of Abe’s “golf buddy”: U.S. President Donald Trump.
Ahead of his departure for a rain-drenched Osaka, Trump indiscriminately lobbed verbal grenades at both his enemies and closest allies, appearing to reignite a controversy over an earlier report that he was considering the possibility of terminating the postwar defense pact with Japan — the backbone of the alliance between the two countries.
Trump, speaking in an interview Wednesday with Fox Business, noted that under the pact, which he has lambasted as unfair, Japan wouldn’t have to help the U.S. if it were attacked, though Washington would be required to come to Tokyo’s aid.
“If Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III,” he said. “We will go in and protect them with our lives and with our treasure. But if we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us. They can watch it on a Sony television.”
Trump’s comments came after a Bloomberg News report quoting three unnamed sources said the U.S. leader had recently mused to confidants about withdrawing from the 1951 Japan-U.S. security treaty.
Japan denied the report, saying that the White House had told Tokyo that it was “inconsistent” with the U.S. government’s position.
What’s more, the mercurial U.S. president’s remarks echoed — almost verbatim — statements he made on the campaign trail ahead of the 2016 presidential election, where he blasted U.S. defense tie-ups with Japan, South Korea and members of NATO.
“You know we have a treaty with Japan where if Japan is attacked, we have to use the full force and might of the United States,” Trump said at the time. “If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do anything. They can sit home and watch Sony television, OK?”
Experts say that despite Trump’s rhetoric, the U.S.-Japan alliance remains robust.
“At this point, I don’t think his remarks will undermine the relationship, given his long history of saying similar things about the alliance,” said Tobias Harris, an expert on Japanese politics at Washington-based consulting firm Teneo Intelligence.
Harris said Trump’s threat was effectively a bluff, noting “institutional barriers” to pulling out of the security pact.
As his campaign gears up, and amid the lingering U.S. trade war with China, Trump is eager for an economic victory he can showcase ahead of the 2020 election.
Hopes of a breakthrough with Beijing at the G20 appear slim, though the South China Morning Post and Politico jointly reported that the two sides had reached a truce in the trade row in order to resume talks aimed at resolving the dispute.
In the absence of a deal with China, Trump has been “frustrated” by the fact that the U.S. and Japan have yet to ink a bilateral trade agreement. This was reflected in his recent mention of August as a desirable deadline, the U.S. ambassador to Japan said in an interview earlier this month.
As for the security pact, Trump may also be looking to use it to get Tokyo to cover more of the costs of American soldiers deployed here.
Mieko Nakayabashi, a political science professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, said that while Trump would likely aim for a trade deal before going after basing costs, he was laying the groundwork for a push to get Japan to pay more.
“I suspect Trump intends to disseminate the (Japan being unfair) remark before the talks start,” Nakabayashi said. “In any case, Trump is adept at taking aim at (a) negotiator’s weak points, and he thinks national security is Japan’s.”
How returning to rhetoric about cost-sharing will impact his close ties with Abe — including when they meet Friday for bilateral talks — remains to be seen.
“That said, the more Trump talks about Japan as a free rider on U.S. security guarantees — particularly as he travels to Japan for the second time in as many months — it certainly does Abe no favors, and increases the likelihood that Abe’s relationship with Trump could come under increased scrutiny domestically, especially during the Upper House election campaign,” Harris said.
That election is scheduled for July 21.
Trump arrived Thursday evening, welcomed by the storm, tight traffic control and protesters in the city. Security, which included the presence of 32,000 police officers, was tight, and major roads were closed in nine areas of Osaka as authorities asked residents to avoid using their cars unless necessary.
A low pressure system brought rain to the area on Thursday afternoon, but little wind. Occasional heavy rain was forecast for late Thursday and Friday morning, the first day of the summit, creating concerns about possible delayed arrivals of some of the 30,000 expected attendees.
Several rallies to protest Trump, Abe, and the neo-liberal economic agenda of the G20 were scheduled. On Friday, one of the larger ones was set to take place in Osaka’s Tempozan Park, in the general vicinity of Intex Osaka, where the leaders are gathered.
A separate event sponsored by four environmental groups to protest the Abe government’s decision to continue with coal-fired power plants was also planned for Friday.
Japan has been heavily criticized by domestic and international environmental groups for that decision, as the world works to meet the 2015 Paris agreement’s goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by century’s end.
Given the “global trend towards a carbon-free society, the G20 Summit in which Japan assumes the presidency for the first time should be the perfect opportunity for Abe to demonstrate leadership in combating climate change by announcing Japan’s coal moratorium,” said Kimiko Hirata, international director of Kiko Network.
In what could cause trouble for Tokyo as it seeks improved ties with Beijing, China will also be the focus of demonstrators.
Exiled Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer was due to speak to the media, give speeches, and participate in demonstrations in central Osaka on Friday and Saturday. She will join other activists to protest the Chinese government’s crackdown in Hong Kong on those who are demonstrating against a measure that would allow residents and visitors there to be extradited to mainland China for trial. On Wednesday, Hong Kong protesters delivered letters to consulates of Japan, the U.S., the U.K., and other countries, calling on them to raise the issue with Xi at the G20.
The Chinese government has said it will not allow discussion of the Hong Kong protests at the summit. But earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an interview with Fox television, said the protests would be a subject of discussion when Trump meets with Xi.
And despite Trump’s harsh words for Japan, he was still able to laud the country’s G20 leadership this year.
“The President, so far, has viewed Japan’s presidency as a tremendous success,” a senior Trump administration official said.
Asked about the chances of the grouping reaching a consensus despite a variety of thorny issues — including ocean plastic, trade and data governance — the official was noncommittal.
“You know, this communique is no different than any other in that ultimately it will depend on the final outcome as to whether or not it truly reflects consensus among the G20 economies,” the official said. “I mean, we’re certainly here and working towards that. The president is reviewing it. And we’ll see where we get to at the end of the week.”