National / Politics | Commentary

As a rare ally on good terms with Trump, Japan has the chance to raise its global standing

by Satohiro Akimoto

Contributing Writer

In the run-up to U.S. President Donald Trump’s four-day visit to Japan beginning Saturday, officials and journalists in Tokyo have fretted over whether trade talks could put a damper on the otherwise robust Japan-U.S. relations.

According to news reports, Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are not scheduled to announce any joint statement, which some speculate is an indication that the two allies may paper over their differences on trade.

As concerns over Trump’s aggressive posture on trade persist, one of the common narratives among the popular press in Tokyo is whether U.S.-Japan relations could finally be entering a period of tension after years of warm relations.

For all of the concerns among some quarters in Tokyo, the consensus among alliance managers in Washington is this: Don’t let trade disrupt the U.S.-Japan alliance.

In their minds, Japan is too valuable a partner for the U.S. to carelessly alienate, especially at a time when it faces a highly volatile world as the unpredictable strongmen of China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea all aggressively assert themselves on the global stage.

In the tumultuous age of Trump where relations between Washington and traditional American allies have frayed, Japan has established itself as the single most important ally for the U.S. in the region — and arguably in the world.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepare for a photo-op during the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires last November. | REUTERS / VIA KYODO
U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepare for a photo-op during the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires last November. | REUTERS / VIA KYODO

A symbolic example in this regard is the confusion that has reigned in the Group of Seven since Trump became president. It has lost the sense of camaraderie among the world’s most advanced industrial democracies due to Trump’s unabashedly “America First” approach and zero-sum negotiating style.

Rather than viewing allies as trusted friends to advance mutual interests and tackle global problems, Trump has accused them of being untrustworthy free riders taking advantage of America’s wealth.Such attitudes caught traditional allies off guard at first, quickly leading to alienation, then indifference and, ultimately, indignation toward Trump’s Washington.

Japan has been the one exception.

By now, it is widely known that Abe has strategically developed a special rapport with Trump while avoiding being on the wrong side of the mercurial president’s America First approach.

The two leaders have had 10 personal encounters and about 30 telephone conversations since Trump won the presidential election in 2016. During his latest visit to Washington last month, Abe attended the first lady’s birthday party, played golf with the president and was even offered the use of Trump’s personal restroom in the White House.

All of this is in stark contrast to Trump’s terse and transactional interactions with other global leaders.

Trump and Abe pose after signing hats reading 'Donald and Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater' at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, near Tokyo, on Nov. 5. | AP
Trump and Abe pose after signing hats reading “Donald and Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater” at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, near Tokyo, on Nov. 5. | AP

But the current state of U.S.-Japan relations isn’t just the result of personal ties. It is a product of solid institutional relations — the most important being the bilateral security alliance.

The institutional relations are tightly supported at the levels of government, bureaucracy, civil society and people. A view widely shared in the U.S. and Japan is that the bilateral relationship is the cornerstone of peace, stability and prosperity in Asia.

That the strong ties extend well beyond the two leaders was evident in Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga’s visit to Washington earlier this month. To begin with, it is extremely rare for a chief Cabinet secretary — who is tasked with crisis management — to travel abroad.

The purpose behind Suga’s trip, officially to address the United Nations on the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals, was partly seen as an opportunity for Abe’s wingman to bolster his foreign policy credentials to become a possible candidate as the next prime minister. If things were tenuous between the two allies, Suga wouldn’t have taken such a risk.

As he wrapped up his trip to the U.S., Suga told the Japanese press that “current U.S.-Japan relations are at their best.”

On the surface, the single most serious threat to the U.S.-Japan relationship seems to be ongoing bilateral trade negotiations.

The Trump White House wants to reduce bilateral trade deficits and gain more market access for American products. Trump is particularly focused on American agricultural products, reflecting the interests of farmers in the red states, while threatening Japan with higher tariffs on automobiles and auto parts.

Moreover, Trump could use trade issues with Japan as a way to placate his political base in Republican-leaning states as he seeks re-election.

This may turn out to be a false alarm, as U.S. trade negotiators appear to be stretched thin with ongoing negotiations with China.

On that note, Trump decided to delay tariffs on automobiles against Japan by six months, a perceived indication of Washington’s desire to focus on talks with Beijing.

And perhaps paying heed to alliance managers, Tokyo appears to be determined not to let trade talks derail the trusted relationship with Trump.

First, Japan has been carefully planning to make Trump’s state visit from Saturday to Tuesday an exceptional experience for him. Most importantly, Japan will provide Trump with the honor of becoming the first foreign leader to meet Emperor Naruhito, who ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1.

Abe and Trump play golf outside Washington on April 27. | CABINET OFFICE / VIA KYODO
Abe and Trump play golf outside Washington on April 27. | CABINET OFFICE / VIA KYODO

Tokyo has also filled the visiting president’s itinerary with activities designed to please him: a round of golf with Abe and Japanese golf legend Isao Aoki, inspecting the Kaga — an Izumo-class helicopter carrier — and the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, as well as watching the final day of the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament and presenting the trophy, dubbed the “Trump Cup,” to the winner.

The events are full of symbolism of the close friendship between Abe and Trump, as well as the solid institutional alliances between the two countries.

Second, Japan may be considering giving a “gift” to Trump in the form of increased market access for U.S. agricultural products. There is tremendous pressure on Trump from core supporters in agriculture-related businesses.

When Abe was in Washington last month, 88 U.S. food businesses and groups wrote to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer: “U.S. exporters of wheat, beef, pork, dairy, wine, potatoes, fruits and vegetables and other products are facing collapse of their Japanese market share as these lucrative sales are handed over to their competitors.”

Reflecting the need to satisfy his political base, Trump actually expressed hope of coming to an agreement with Japan during his next visit to Tokyo.

While Abe seemed perplexed at the time, Japan essentially agreed last September to open the market to the level that was agreed upon with the U.S. in the TPP negotiations. However, market opening for U.S. agricultural products is politically not easy with the Upper House election, possibly together with a Lower House election, scheduled in July.

Still, all of this presents Japan with a unique opportunity.

Japan can score big in the eyes of Trump if it quickly provides an “easy win” to Trump without having trade negotiators playing the usual kabuki of trying to protect the domestic market until the very end.

The U.S. would then have to give something in return, such as dropping the threat of tariff hikes on the Japanese auto industry. Roughly 70 percent of Japanese-brand cars sold in the U.S. are made there in the first place.

Economic revitalization minister Toshimitsu Motegi and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer are seen during bilateral trade talks in Washington on April 17. | KYODO
Economic revitalization minister Toshimitsu Motegi and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer are seen during bilateral trade talks in Washington on April 17. | KYODO

Trump is scheduled to visit Japan twice in the next two months. This is a strategic moment for Japan to think big based on the country’s unique situation in the age of Trump, both domestically and internationally.

Domestically, Japan is politically stable under the leadership exerted by Abe. It is not riven by severe social divisions and confrontations emerging from different political, economic and cultural groups, unlike the U.S. and Western European countries.

Additionally, Japan does not express serious criticism or ridicule over Trump being in the country — certainly not to the level of harsh criticism prevalent in the U.S. and Western Europe. Objections to Trump becoming the first foreign leader to pay respects to the new emperor do exist, for sure, but they are so small as to be negligible.

Internationally, Japan is in a position to play a major role in filling the leadership vacuum among liberal democracies. Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are all saddled with politically destabilizing populist issues at home.

It is no wonder, then, that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said, “Japan is the leader of the free world.”

Japan certainly has been demonstrating leadership, something traditionally not associated with the country in an international context, in driving the process of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership to fruition following the U.S.’s withdrawal.

Trump’s two visits, to Tokyo and Osaka, in the next two months will present windows of opportunity for Japan to strengthen its strategic position on the world stage.

Japan can achieve that goal by further strengthening the bilateral relationship with the U.S. as the host to Trump, playing a leadership role in global affairs as the chair country of the Group of 20, and facilitating communication between Trump and the rest of the world.

Indications are that Tokyo is aware of this rare opportunity and is prepared to make the most of it.

Satohiro Akimoto is president of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and an associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Asia-Pacific Program.

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