Before U.S. President Donald Trump took office on Jan. 20 last year, Japanese officials were anxious, even obsessed, with a nightmare scenario that could not be ruled out — an incoming American leader who could shake up the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region and vastly damage domestic interests.
During his election campaign, Trump threatened to withdraw U.S. forces from Japan unless Tokyo paid all stationing costs and hinted that he would let Japan and South Korea arm themselves with nuclear weapons, which would strain regional tensions and could even spur an arms race in East Asia.
The former reality TV star also vocally pledged to launch a trade war with Tokyo to cut the U.S. trade deficit, reviving bitter memories of the long-running diplomatic battles Tokyo and Washington waged in the 1980s and ’90s.
A year into his presidency, Trump has yet to fulfill any of those pledges.
In fact, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has built what is often touted as one of the best and closest relationships a Japanese prime minister has had with a U.S. president.
As Trump marks the first anniversary of his inauguration on Saturday (Japan time), The Japan Times interviewed four noted Japan-based experts on relations with the U.S.
All praised Abe for his strong management of Japan’s relationship with the “unpredictable” Trump over the past year and said his risky gamble to embrace him so far appears to have paid off.
“Prime Minister Abe took great risks approaching Trump and managed to tame the monster,” said Kazuhiro Maeshima, professor of international relations at Sophia University in Tokyo.
But the key element of Trump’s policies is his “America First” economic nationalism. The president could reopen old wounds in the future, especially if the North Korean crisis abates, the experts warned.
“The foundation of what makes Trump tick is economic nationalism. At anytime he could start demanding Japan do something to correct the trade imbalance,” Maeshima said.
According to Yasushi Watanabe, a professor and American studies expert at Keio University, “If the North Korean problem starts to cool down, (Washington’s) attention will shift from security to economic issues.”
“It’s impossible to tell when it might happen, but it could be before or after the (U.S.) midterm elections. He may then start putting pressure on Japan,” he said.
Abe’s gamble started shortly before the U.S. election in November 2016, when the Foreign Ministry, like most observers, expected Hillary Clinton to win.
But Abe was skeptical of the Foreign Ministry’s analysis and instructed his staff to opens communication channels with Trump’s campaign team.
As a result, Abe became the first foreign leader to meet with Trump after the election, on Nov. 17. The Foreign Ministry initially opposed the idea of Abe holding an unofficial meeting with the U.S. president-elect, a high-ranking official said of the unprecedented move.
Abe overrode their opposition and his quick approach reportedly pleased Trump, eventually helping him win his deep trust.
While the North Korean nuclear crisis was developing last year, Trump frequently contacted Abe and sought his advice while putting aside the trade issues he had pledged to pursue in his campaign.
“After (Trump) took office, the two leaders had five face-to-face meetings and as many as 17 teleconferences over the next year,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at his regular news conference Thursday.
Suga said the bilateral relationship is “now stronger than ever” thanks to the “trusting relationship” between the leaders.
“Many Japanese people, including myself and government officials, were greatly concerned when Trump was elected in 2016,” said Fumiaki Kubo, a University of Tokyo professor specializing in modern American politics.
But during his first official meeting with Abe in February, Trump reversed his campaign stance and reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Japan security alliance, which was a big victory for Tokyo, Kubo said.
Since the war, the U.S. has always taken the lead in Japan-U.S. relations, and Tokyo was often criticized as merely catering to Washington’s demands. But on his first official tour of Asia in November, Trump repeatedly called for “a free and open Indo-Pacific” — a phrase Abe coined in 2016, Kubo pointed out.
“This is probably the first time that an American president has used a strategic concept originated by Japan,” said Watanabe of Keio University.
Officially, Abe’s phrase is a policy seeking prosperity based on democracy, law-based order and a market mechanism in the region.
One of the key goals of the strategy, however, is to rein in China’s growing influence and assertiveness in the region by emphasizing those values, experts say.
Watanabe said that Trump is an inward-looking politician who could seriously damage the existing international order that has benefited Japan and the rest of the world for decades.
Abe’s diplomatic maneuvering to strengthen America’s commitment to the alliance has helped ensure Trump’s engagement on some global issues, he said.
His support for Trump, however, also has drawbacks.
Watanabe pointed out that there is a public perception that Abe, unlike some Western leaders, rarely criticizes Trump, even when he draws international criticism for remarks perceived to be discriminatory.
Faced with multiple geopolitical threats, including the growing presence of China and security concerns over North Korea, it has been difficult for Abe to openly criticize his U.S. counterpart, Watanabe said.
“Japan needs the power of America and greatly relies on it as far as security issues are concerned,” he said.
Ryo Sahashi, an associate professor of international politics at Kanagawa University, noted that North Korea has drawn more and more public attention in the U.S., and Trump is likely to face stronger public pressure this year to achieve tangible results in dealing with the military crisis.
So Trump might start a dialogue with Pyongyang and strike a compromise without securing the total denuclearization of North Korea, which Japan is keen to see, he said.
“That’s the scariest scenario for Japan,” he said.
If Washington compromises and agrees to allow Pyongyang to keep nuclear weapons in exchange for renouncing its long-range ballistic missile program, it would considerably reduce the direct threat to the U.S.
But that would isolate Japan and force Tokyo to deal with the nuclear-armed North alone, said Maeshima of Sophia University.
“It would raise fundamental questions over what the Japan-U.S. security alliance is for,” Maeshima said.
Meanwhile, Kubo of the University of Tokyo pointed out that public opinion polls are suggesting the Republicans could lose a number of seats in November’s midterm elections, which would deal a big blow to Trump’s administration.
If the Republicans lose their majority in Congress, it would encourage anti-Trump lawmakers to take stronger action against the president, including tougher investigations into scandals allegedly involving him, Kubo said.
“There is a good chance that Trump’s administration will find itself in a very difficult situation,” he said.
Watanabe, too, believes Trump’s administration could become “a lame duck” if Republicans lose their majority in the House of Representatives,” which would make him struggle to win a second term.
Abe’s team doesn’t need to rush to cater to all of the diplomatic demands made by the Trump administration, Watanabe argued. Abe should instead keep a close eye on developments in U.S. politics and maintain a certain distance from him if necessary, he said.