National | VIEW FROM OSAKA

Abe walks a fine line between Trump and Asia

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

In defending his attempts to bond with U.S. President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Diet members last week that however critical other countries, and much of America, might be of Trump, he, and by extension Japan, has no other choice but to forge close relations with the president.

Abe was speaking in the context of regional security and Japan’s reliance on U.S. military protection under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. But in Kansai, photos of Abe and Trump holding hands, patting each other’s shoulders and gazing into each other’s eyes only reinforced worries that the prime minister’s eager desire for a “bromance” with the mercurial Trump could alienate Japan, economically and otherwise, from its East Asian neighbors.

Such thinking, according to two media polls conducted after the Feb. 10 summit, appears to be in the minority. An NHK nationwide poll showed 68 percent of respondents at least partially praised the meeting while a separate Kyodo News poll showed 70.2 percent were satisfied with it. But Kansai’s savvy business leaders wonder if Abe might be tying Japan too close to Trump by making, or hinting at, promises and concessions to his demands that end up reducing Japan’s ability to cooperate and compete, economically and otherwise, with Asia.

At the recent Kansai Economic Seminar, a yearly gathering of regional business leaders, it was hard to find anyone visibly excited about the possibility of a Japan-U.S. trade agreement, which Trump has indicated he prefers. A glance at the most recent trade statistics shows why.

Total exports to the Asian region in 2016 from six Kansai prefectures amounted to over ¥10.4 trillion, while total Asian imports came to about ¥7.7 trillion. By contrast, the value of U.S. exports was about ¥2 trillion and imports about ¥1.1 trillion.

Such figures create a more general sense that, unlike Tokyo or the Nagoya region — where Japanese automakers with heavy U.S. investments as well as American and Japanese firms involved in military technologies are based — the Kansai region has less need to concern itself with how statements the U.S. president or his administration might make directly impact Japan’s relations, especially political and economic relations, with its American ally.

With Trump’s announcement that America would not participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, there were the expected howls of indignation from Kansai’s top corporations. But they seemed more muted than similar cries of anger heard from Tokyo among politicians, corporate groups and business-oriented news organizations. A few even suggested that with Kobe due to host the next round of negotiations later this month of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, which the U.S. is not participating in, there was an opportunity to demonstrate to Washington, as well as reassure Asia, that Japan — and particularly the Abe administration — is a committed regional player regardless of what the Americans do.

At the moment, Abe is winning acclaim from U.S. commentators for his “international statesman-like abilities.” A more accurate reading is that his efforts are less “international” and more a reflection of his desire to forge Japan’s own “America First” policy. The failure of Abe’s December summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin to produce a major diplomatic breakthrough, continued frosty relations with China and the ongoing row with South Korea over the “comfort women” issue suggest it’s premature to sing his praises as an international statesman. Rather, it’s time to ask, as Kansai’s more thoughtful leaders are doing, if Abe can at least be a good “regional statesman” by not only strengthening relations with the U.S. beyond a personal relationship with Trump but also repairing relations with Japan’s Asian neighbors who will still be there long after Trump has faded into history.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.