BY JESSE JOHNSON AND RYUSEI TAKAHASHI, STAFF WRITERS
New Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s first one-on-one telephone talks with U.S. President Donald Trump went without a hitch Sunday evening, but the Japanese leader is expected to face a number of challenges in the run-up to the Nov. 3 American presidential election.
The U.S.-Japan security alliance topped the agenda in the 25-minute talks, during which Suga told Trump the two allies’ relationship was the “cornerstone of peace and stability in the region,” the prime minister told reporters Sunday after the talks.
According to Suga, Trump said that should anything happen, the Japanese prime minister could call him, anytime — “24 hours a day.”
“I felt it was a very good response as we look to renew and further strengthen our alliance with the U.S.,” Suga said at the Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday night. “This was the first of many opportunities as we hold talks with national leaders to clarify our position and foster further collaboration.”
According to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, during the nearly half-hour conversation Suga asked Trump for continued support in pushing for the return of Japanese nationals who were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.
The leaders also agreed to cooperate on the development and distribution of a vaccine and treatment for COVID-19, the statement said.
After congratulating Suga on his party presidential election victory, Trump discussed with the newly appointed Japanese prime minister the importance of pursuing a “shared vision” of a free and open Indo-Pacific, according to a statement released by the White House.
But despite a successful first step in building a relationship with the mercurial Trump, concerns over Suga’s lack of foreign policy chops remain.
“For Suga, who has been framed as inexperienced in foreign policy, the primary object of the talk with Trump was to reassure the public and the alliance managers both in Tokyo and Washington that the recent power transition in Japan does not jeopardize alliance stability,” said Sebastian Maslow, an expert on Japanese politics at Sendai Shirayuri Women’s University.
Maslow noted that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ability to craft a close relationship with the unpredictable Trump is considered one of the former prime minister’s key legacies.
“Suga will certainly try to preserve the status quo in the alliance at least until the U.S. presidential election in November,” he said.
Observers say Suga will, however, face several challenges in this area in the coming weeks.
First, he will have to resist any pressure from Trump for further financial commitments as the U.S. and Japan renegotiate a host-nation support agreement later this year, and as Washington seeks Japanese concessions on bilateral trade, said Maslow.
Suga will also have to walk a fine line amid the increasingly acrimonious dispute between China, Japan’s top trading partner, and the U.S., its top ally.
But maintaining its traditional approach of balancing security and economic national interests is sure to grow more difficult as pressure grows from both Beijing and Washington.
Most immediately, Suga will have to keep one eye on maintaining the U.S.-Japan alliance while also “resisting Trump’s populist instincts to instrumentalize Japan during the elections,” Maslow said.
And he will have to do so while attempting to preserve the same kind of access to the White House that Abe was afforded.
This, as well as further cultivating ties, could prove to be difficult amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
Traditionally, a bilateral U.S.-Japan summit would have been scheduled on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting this week. But since that is not an option this year, early on much will hinge on what comes out of scheduled talks between National Security Adviser Shigeru Kitamura and his U.S. counterpart, Robert O’Brien, in Washington later this week.
Still, this could be a blessing in disguise for a new prime minister who has openly acknowledged diplomacy as a personal weak point, allowing him to avoid any potential dust-ups with the U.S. president.
“For better or worse, the current pandemic provides Suga with an opportunity to not hold a personal meeting with Trump,” said Maslow.