WASHINGTON – The recent Trump-Abe summit was, in both formal and informal terms, a ringing confirmation of the U.S.-Japan alliance. It also stressed the transcendent importance of U.S.-Japan relations as a whole in American global diplomacy.
U.S. President Donald Trump personally and publicly confirmed, as the Abe administration fervently hoped, that “all areas under Japan’s administrative control” (meaning the Senkaku Islands) fall under the coverage of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
He stressed the importance of freedom of navigation, a matter at issue today in the South China Sea, as well as the dangers of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.
Trump also pointedly thanked Japan for hosting U.S. armed forces, and made no mention of “burden-sharing,” departing markedly from his campaign-trail skepticism of Japan’s contributions to mutual defense.
For his part, Abe too re-affirmed the importance that he personally appears to see in U.S.-Japan relations, noting at his joint press conference with Trump that he had traveled four times in the past six months to the United States.
Abe noted, appropriately, the $150 billion that Japanese firms have invested recently in the U.S., and the important contribution that such investment is making to U.S. employment.
He also pointed to the important areas where U.S.-Japan security cooperation is deepening, including defense against North Korean threats and counter-terrorism.
Following their affirmative meetings in Washington, Trump and Abe adjourned with their wives to Florida for rounds of golf and further discussion at Trump’s estate. This was only Trump’s second summit with a foreign leader (following an initial meeting with America’s trans-Atlantic cousins, the British), and the first to offer the extraordinary courtesy of an informal weekend dialogue as Trump’s personal guest.
The successful summit followed a series of troubled phone discussions with longtime friends and allies, including Germany, Australia and Mexico.
Trump accorded Abe, in short, both extraordinary access and courtesy. The two leaders also agreed on a much wider range of issues than Washington observers would have dreamed even six weeks ago.
Given the notably warm chemistry of this summit, are we about to enter another amicable “Ron-Yasu” type relationship, as was so apparent in U.S.-Japan relations 30 years ago under U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone?
I am still cautious about that long-term prospect, for three reasons. First, there is Trump’s personal psychology — he needs reaffirmation and support at the beginning of his term, surrounded as he is by opponents, and could shift his current views in the future, as he has so often done in the past.
Second, Trump’s domestic political base is quite protectionist, and very different from Reagan’s. And third, an aging Japan may have fewer resources today to support the U.S., especially in financial terms, than was true in Reagan’s era.
To a greater extent than any U.S. president since Theodore Roosevelt, according to a recent psychological analysis, Trump has a narcissistic streak and craves personal support.
He has enjoyed remarkably little such support — either domestically or internationally — in the past few weeks. At home, he is mired in a legal controversy over immigration from Muslim-majority nations; internationally, he has quarreled personally with leaders of even long-standing allies, and encountered further quiet backlash through his repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and global environmental agreements.
Support for his presidency is lukewarm even in Britain, and most of the other European nations are critical of him. In the Pacific, Trump is deeply suspicious of China, and on poor terms with longtime ally Australia, not to mention smaller nations like Vietnam, that are deeply disappointed about his stance on the TPP.
So Abe’s personal friendship for Trump, expressed in such effusive terms, must seem immensely valuable, especially in the short run.
The character of Trump’s domestic political base is a second reason for long-term caution about the durability of this initially blossoming TPP. Trump won the election — against all expectations — by breaching the “blue wall” of states that had been consistently Democratic for a quarter of a century or more.
Most importantly, Rust Belt states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — the last of which he won by only 10,000 votes — shifted from the Democratic column, and delivered his upset triumph.
Blue collar industrial workers were a core part of his victory coalition. And many of them work in sectors like autos, steel and machine tools that have a long history of conflict with Japan.
In contrast to Trump, Reagan’s domestic base was the Sun Belt states, such as California and Texas, which have traditionally been quite friendly toward Japan, and host little manufacturing.
In thinking about the future of the Trump-Abe relationship, it is also important to ask — especially in the case of a pragmatic president like Trump, whose specialty is “the art of the deal” — how much Japan will be able to or want to deliver to the U.S., and especially to support its industrial base.
When a reporter at the Trump-Abe press conference insightfully asked the two leaders, repeating Trump’s campaign slogan, what it would take to “make America great again,” Abe said he hoped for a sustained U.S. security role. Trump, by contrast, responded immediately in economic terms.
In Reagan’s day, Nakasone’s Japan was able to offer invaluable political-economic support to the U.S. through the massive flow of capital across the Pacific, enabled by financial liberalization in Japan, to fund Reagan’s muscular defense buildup.
Today, with the Japanese economy growing much more slowly, and with the large financial flows accompanying liberalization, from such institutions as life insurance companies already complete, incremental private-sector flows cannot be nearly as large.
Additionally, Abe is proposing to provide large-scale assistance to Russia, as well as to Africa and Southeast Asia, while also expanding defense spending.
Outside Japan, China, South Korea and other countries will also likely be competing for Trump’s favor. Japanese officials and their private-sector colleagues will need to be creative and ambitious in developing economic cooperation concepts with the U.S. that match the scale and importance of the “Ron-Yasu” years.
What they are planning may be quite a long way from what Trump and his supporters are expecting, no matter how warm the summit declarations may have been. Same bed, in short, but very different dreams.
Kent E. Calder is director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at SAIS/Johns Hopkins University in Washington.