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Abe-Trump Meeting: Threading The Diplomatic Needle – Analysis


The agenda for Japan’s PM Shinzō Abe’s visit to Washington for a tête-a-tête with President Trump will undoubtedly be a full one. North Korean denuclearization, bilateral trade, security cooperation and President Trump’s upcoming visits to Japan to meet the new Emperor in May and for the G-20 Summit in June will be at the center of discussions.

The U.S.-China trade war and concerns over China’s efforts to be the first mover in the deployment of 5G technology could also be addressed as Japan’s economic growth and stability is being negatively affected by both.

PM Abe will have a difficult diplomatic needle to thread. He will have to convey Japan’s concerns over some of the administration’s policies without eliciting a negative reaction. Bad chemistry has consequences as we saw following the G-7 in Canada in 2017 in which the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fell victim to a President Trump tweet attack and the subsequent souring of bilateral relations. Arguably, the spat contributed to the tactics used to push Canada into signing the NAFTA 2.0 (USMCA) trade deal.

On the security front Japan is well placed. The increased cooperation within the Japan-US alliance and Japan’s leadership in pushing the Free and Open Indo Vision (FOIP) has been welcomed by Washington. This will reduce the chances that PM Abe will receive the ire of a displeased President Trump in discussions concerning security.

Stepped up patrols in the SCS, including joint training with the U.S., deepening coordination with Australia, and Japan’s successful lobbying of extra-regional powers such as France, the U.K. and Canada to increase their presence in the Indo-Pacific has been important in addressing some of the burden sharing criticisms emanating out of the Trump Administration.

The revision of Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) has also created a more balanced alliance relationship by increasing operability between Japanese and U.S. forces and through the investment in technology to promote flexibility in new domains. Both will strengthen their ability to defend interests in the ESC and SCS.

Diplomacy vis-à-vis North Korea has also been a cohesive that has strengthened relations. Unlike some of the other stakeholders in the region, Japan has remained publicly supportive and non-obstructionist of the administration’s unorthodox approach to compelling North Korea to denuclearize. Washington needs more partners like Japan if it is hoping to carve out a substantive solution to the North Korean challenge.

Whereas security cooperation has been mostly without friction, President Trump’s “America First” mantra means he will continue to push for a bilateral FTA with Japan. Here, Japan may benefit from the continuation of the U.S.-China trade war in that the U.S. Trade Representative and his team maybe too focused on achieving a positive outcome in U.S.-China negotiations to engage in serious negotiations with Japan.

What is clear is that Japan prefers a Trade Agreement on Goods (TAG) only or much more preferably for the U.S. to return to the TPP. The TPP would have addressed many of the bilateral trade differences that exist between the U.S. and Japan. Additionally, its strict rules about the role of state-owned enterprises (SoEs), intellectual property rights, labour and environmental laws would have had a very strong role in cementing the U.S.’s position in the Indo-Pacific and addressing many of the major concerns that the US has with China.

In contrast, the Trump Administration is striving for a comprehensive pact that would cover a range of areas such as goods, services, investment and currency as well as agriculture and automobiles. By insisting on this approach, the Trump Administration would open themselves up to protracted negotiations that would enviably fracture trust in the bilateral relationship. There would be no short term take homes either.

Japan has also consistently demonstrated its preference for multilateral trade agreements such as the TPP 11 and the Japan-E.U. EPA. This commitment is further evidence by Japan’s continuing efforts to realize the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which includes China and India.

In his meetings with President Trump on trade, PM Abe must present options to the White House that demonstrate Japan’s commitment to addressing the trade deficit that exists such as reducing the trade deficit through the purchasing of arms or energy.

President Trump’s decision to withdrawal from the TPP has hurt U.S. farmers as Australians, Canadians and New Zealander farmers been able to quickly insert themselves into the Japanese market. Barring infringement of WTO rules, Japan should find a way to relieve some of the pressure on U.S. farmers as well.

Any concession by Japan should include a removal of punitive steel tariffs.

The ricochet effects on the Japanese economy in the wake of the U.S.-China trade war and the challenges that Japan would face if China and the U.S. develop separate and distinct 5G networks also need to be highlighted in discussions between Tokyo and Washington.

A prolongation or intensification of the trade war could disrupt the economic growth that Japan has enjoyed over the past several years and weaken their ability to be the capable partner the U.S. has become accustomed to. This message should be clearly conveyed to President Trump. Japan AND the U.S. need each other.

Lastly, the visit will be an opportunity for Japan to convey to the White House and the U.S. in general of the deep, long lasting, and significant nature of their bilateral ties.

President Trump will be the first foreign leader to meet the new Emperor sometime in late May. This is significant as it attempts to cement U.S.-Japan relations in a period of unusual instability in how the U.S. has traditionally conducted foreign policy in the post-WW 2 period. He will also return to Japan in June for the G-20 Osaka Summit barring domestic troubles in the U.S. or a misstep in PM Abe’s last meeting with President Trump of the Heisei Era.

The Abe-Trump talks will not be without difficulty. Notwithstanding, by focusing on shared interests, cooperation and achievements of the U.S. and Japan during the Trump Administration, Japan may be able to avoid the experiences of other international leaders in their encounters with President Trump.

About the author:
* Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs

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One thought on “Abe-Trump Meeting: Threading The Diplomatic Needle – Analysis

  • May 6, 2019 at 1:53 pm

    The article mainly talked about Japan’s role under the circumstances of North Korean challenge and China-US trade war. As the article mentioned, denuclearization of North Korea seems stagnating as not many countries are on the same page as the US. Although Japan has been playing similar role to the US, it is uncertain whether Japan is doing it as one of the strategy to deepen the tie with the US or for own sake. One thing is clear that PM Abe must give hard face to North Korea since abduction issues are one of his manifesto. Another key is that Japan and the US bilateral FTA. Since Japanese trades are highly depended on China, the degree of the strengthening FTA with the US must be prudent. Although Japan may fear the abandonment by the US, it is obvious that Japan cannot cut the economical ties with China.


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