Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has long boasted about his diplomatic skills, but in just two weeks he has suffered several humiliating setbacks, raising questions about his claimed prowess.
The latest crisis emerged on Wednesday in the Upper House when Abe admitted that the diplomats and intelligence officials failed to get advance knowledge of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s surprise trip to Beijing for his first summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The summit was confirmed earlier that day.
Abe said he learned of the Kim-Xi summit “via news reports.” This stood in sharp contrast with Washington and Seoul, which reportedly received advance notice from Beijing.
“The situation is drastically changing. The people are concerned that Japan alone may have been left behind,” Upper House member Nobuhiro Miura of Komeito told Abe during the session.
Komeito is the junior coalition partner of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. It is unusual for a lawmaker from the ruling bloc to express concerns about Abe’s diplomacy.
Abe said he agrees that there is public concern that the U.S. and other countries could potentially strike a compromise that allows North Korea to maintain nuclear weapons and short- to midrange ballistic missiles capable of hitting Japan in return for an agreement to renounce the development intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Abe then promised he would urge U.S. President Donald Trump to address those concerns at their meeting next month in Washington.
But experts say the next meeting, unlike their previous encounters, is likely to be a challenge, given the U.S. administration’s apparent attempt to raise trade tensions with Japan.
Trump’s apparent readiness to confront Japan was reflected in a comment he made after signing a presidential memorandum targeting “China’s Economic Aggression” on March 22.
“I will say, the people we’re negotiating with — smilingly, they really agree with us. I really believe they cannot believe they’ve gotten away with this for so long,” he said. “I’ll talk to Prime Minister Abe of Japan and others — great guy, friend of mine — and there will be a little smile on their face. And the smile is, ‘I can’t believe we’ve been able to take advantage of the United States for so long.’ So those days are over.”
The comment likely came as a shock to Abe, who has based almost all of his key diplomatic initiatives, including those to keep China and North Korea in check, on having a sound relationship with the United States.
The increased diplomatic tension with Washington represents a major headache for Abe, which is why he has worked hard to please Trump, including holding dozens of phone calls, hours-long golf outings and even a red-carpet reception for his daughter and presidential adviser Ivanka Trump when she visited Tokyo in November.
But Abe and his aides may have been overly optimistic in how they went about managing Trump, who is often said to act on intuition rather than strategy — in particular when it comes to the populist agenda he uses to garner support with voters.
One issue on that agenda is trade.
On March 20, trade minister Hiroshige Seko said he believed “there is a high chance” that Japanese steel and aluminum products would be exempted from new tariffs Trump pledged to impose on a per-item basis. Japan had also urged Trump to grant it exemptions on a national basis.
But Trump snubbed Japan’s request and announced on March 23 that U.S. allies in the EU, plus Canada, Mexico, Australia and South Korea would be given exemptions. It was a humiliating setback for Abe and Seko.
“There have been several miscalculations on the side of Prime Minister Abe,” said Kazuhiro Maeshima, professor of international relations at Sophia University in Tokyo and an expert on American politics.
The first miscalculation left Japan watching from the sidelines amid Pyongyang’s fast-moving and apparently successful diplomatic overtures to Seoul and Beijing. Abe was simply unable to keep, Maeshima said.
The second miscalculation, he said, involved policy shifts in Trump’s administration that coincided with the dismissal of key advisers. The ousted figures included former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and former National Economic Council chief Gary Cohn, who were opposed to the steel and aluminum tariffs.
Top officials at the Prime Minister’s Office have often emphasized to reporters that Trump and his aides were capable of making rational decisions and deeply understood the strategic importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance. But Maeshima said that may no longer be the case, given the revolving door at the White House.
Maeshima said Trump appears to be returning to the economic policies he focused during his presidential campaign.
“He is the ultimate populist, so he is looking at what his supporters are thinking about. Many of his supporters, in particular those in their 50s and 60s, may still remember the Japan-U.S. trade friction” of the 1980s and 1990s, he said.
At the Japan-U.S. summit planned for April 18, Abe will try to mainly discuss North Korea. But Trump may bring up trade issues, “which would be troublesome” for Abe, Maeshima said.