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Trump-Putin summit: A political boon for Abe?

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. President Donald Trump’s seeming embrace of Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Monday — and his labeling of the European Union as a “foe” a day earlier — have sent shock waves through the capitals of American allies, including Tokyo. But the Putin-Trump summit could prove to be something of a political boon for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Trump’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki was his first one-on-one summit with a man he has variously described as an important U.S. competitor but also a strong, effective leader. These descriptions — which have come despite criticism of alleged Russian meddling in U.S. elections, its annexation of Crimea and its suspected political assassinations — align with much of Abe’s views on Putin.

“For the most part, Abe will be pleased about Trump’s decision to meet with Putin in Helsinki,” said James D.J. Brown, an associate professor at Temple University in Tokyo who specializes in Japan-Russia relations. “This is because it can be seen as a vindication of Abe’s own policy toward Russia.”

Brown said Abe’s approach “has been to consistently promote high-level political engagement with Russia” This has included a total of 21 face-to-face meetings that came even as other world leaders continue to shun the Russian president.

The prime minister’s charm offensive is widely seen as a bid to resolve a long-festering row over four disputed islands off Hokkaido that has prevented the two nations from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II.

Abe has pinned much of his hopes on joint economic activities on the Russian-held, Japanese-claimed islands — called the Northern Territories by Tokyo — to pave the way for resolving the dispute. This push, however, has been met with few signs of progress.

In pursuit of this seemingly quixotic goal, Abe has taken a softer stance than his U.S. counterparts on sanctions against Russia over Crimea and has been reluctant to criticize Putin over other contentious issues.

While there has been some skittishness in Tokyo that there could be blowback from the West over Abe’s position on Russia, Brown said the Trump-Putin summit will go a long way toward alleviating those fears.

“There has always been some nervousness in the Japanese government that Abe’s soft stance on Russia will attract criticism from the West,” Brown said. “However, given Trump’s own summit with Putin and the U.S. president’s own reluctance to condemn what are seen as Russia’s malicious international actions, Abe can feel confident that his Russia policy will not receive criticism from the White House.”

But Abe must also confront another reality that has surrounded his own meetings with the mercurial Trump: the U.S. leader’s willingness to upend decades of U.S. foreign policy and rattle its allies in service of his own political interests.

This was on full display during his visit to Europe, where he berated allies, questioned the value of the NATO alliance and bashed leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May. Asked during an interview whom he considered to be his biggest global foe, Trump named the EU, citing “what they do to us on trade.”

Trump has a long history of taking Japan to task over similar issues, including what he has said are “unfair” trade practices and Tokyo’s contribution to the costs of stationing U.S. troops in the country. These criticisms have eased somewhat as Trump shifted focus to the North Korean nuclear crisis, but have returned in the wake of his meeting with leader Kim Jong Un.

One of the trickiest challenges now facing Abe and other allied leaders is to determine whether Trump’s future moves are policy shifts or a “physical version of the tweets,” said Nick Bisley, an Asia expert and professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Australia, noting the president’s habit of routinely tweeting vitriol only to later backtrack or tone down those statements.

While such moves were “extremely unsettling” for U.S. allies, Bisley said it wasn’t because of Trump’s willingness to publicly trash alliances and later backpedal.

It’s “because we’ve now seen a confirmed pattern of behavior in which Trump’s No. 1 priority remains his domestic concerns and particularly pleasing his political base,” Bisley said. “If this means trade wars, trash talking and undermining allies, so be it. In Trump’s mind, there is no U.S. grand strategy, just an international backdrop to Trump’s domestic politicking.”

The big question, he added, is whether this pattern of behavior “goes beyond four years and how much it affects the deeper structures of U.S. defense and foreign policy.”

In the near-term, though, Abe is likely to benefit. Although he may face some criticism for his Russia policy, it is unlikely to be for resembling that of the White House.

“Even if Trump is not particularly popular in Japan, there is the wide recognition that it is still necessary for the Japanese prime minister to remain close to him,” said Temple’s Brown. “This is a very different situation from the U.K., where May was subject to intense criticism for playing host to Trump.

“Abe’s Russia policy may well receive criticism in Japan for being ineffective, but it will not be condemned for being too Trumpian,” he added.