Commentary / Japan

For Shinzo Abe, an epic buyer's remorse

When an old and gray Shinzo Abe counts his biggest regrets as prime minister, Nov. 17, 2016, may easily top the list. That was the day Japan’s leader scurried to New York to honor Donald Trump’s shock victory — and pledge allegiance to his reign.

Back then, Japanologists tripped over themselves to applaud Abe’s Trump Tower gambit. Never mind diplomatic faux pas, including the U.S. leader bringing his kids to the meeting. By vouching for Trump (“I am convinced Mr. Trump is a leader in whom I can have great confidence”), Abe was said to protect the Japan-U.S. alliance and set Tokyo up for preferential treatment by a transactional president.

What a difference 187 days make. The unending torrent of Trump White House scandals, crises and diplomatic own-goals belie Abe’s “confidence.” In record time, Trump’s shenanigans warranted the appointment of special counsel, comparisons to U.S. President Richard Nixon’s “Watergate” fiasco and impeachment buzz in the halls of Washington power. Buyer’s remorse, Abe-san?

Here are four ways Trump’s troubles are backfiring on Abe’s 2017.

Imperiling Abenomics

In mid-February, Abe found himself at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida lair, reaping the rewards of being the first major leader to normalize America’s untested new CEO. As Abe prepared for the second meeting he reportedly mulled plans to create 700,000 U.S. jobs, generate $450 billion worth of new markets and perhaps even use public pension funds to finance Trump’s infrastructure projects. But let’s be honest about Abe’s true goal: keeping Trump’s fingers off exchange rates.

After 1,609 days, Abenomics is still overwhelmingly a Bank of Japan game. Tokyo’s strategy to boost exports, corporate profits and the Nikkei via a weaker yen is in tatters as the Trump reflation trade goes awry. The yen is set to strengthen with each downtick in U.S. stocks as investors bet against Trumponomics. Every day Trump spends swatting away domestic crisis is one he’s not seizing to boost wages, cut corporate taxes and negotiate a free-trade agreement with Japan. What’s more, the yen and the fate of BOJ policies could be just one early-morning Twitter rant from ruin.

Cozying up to China

As president, Trump has been a very different animal toward Beijing than on the campaign trail. Talk of China “raping” American workers has been replaced by a pragmatism few knew Trump possessed. Or is it just that transactional Trump sees payoffs in wooing Xi Jinping? Take those long-sought trademarks that got approved days after Trump demurred on changing the “one-China” concerning Taiwan. Playing nice has been a boon to first daughter Ivanka Trump’s China jewelry and spa brands and the real estate interests of her husband, Jared Kushner. It also made Chinese President Xi Jinping somewhat more willing to tighten the screws on North Korea.

Where does Trump’s Xi bromance leave Abe? Perhaps on the outside looking in. A cagy businessman, Trump surely made a mental note the day Abe sprinted to his gilded tower: Wow, Japan sure needs me more than I need Japan. Sitting in such a dangerous neighborhood, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has little recourse but to keep Trump happy. Knowing this, Trump may entrust his real friendship to Xi, a fellow authoritarian who runs a much bigger economy than Abe, oversees a more influential military and presides over the world’s most coveted market. For all his enmity toward the Clinton family, Trump’s Asia legacy could be a revival of the “Japan passing” dynamic that so irked Tokyo during Bill Clinton’s 1990s U.S. presidency.

Trolling Kim Jong Un

The best humankind can do is hope Trump isn’t crazy enough to fire missiles Pyongyang’s way. But Trump surely recalls the high point of his young presidency: that day in April he fired 59 Tomahawks Syria’s way. Even fierce liberal critics joined slam-town America in applauding the move. Besieged and paranoid as Russia investigations close in, might Trump wag the proverbial dog at North Korea to change the narrative? This risk, paradoxically, reduces the odds Kim would scrap his nuclear program, a deterrent like none other. It also increases risks Kim’s inner circle might misinterpret one of Trump’s tweets as a prologue to war.

Tokyo was better off when such scenarios were confined to pages of Tom Clancy and John le Carre novels. Japan is an obvious target should Kim decide to lash out. Of course, Trump versus Kim cuts both ways for Abe. Kim’s recent missile-test binge makes it easier for Abe to boost military spending. It also dovetails with his ambition to revise the war-renouncing Constitution. Yet Trump’s bluster is an existential threat to the nation that long viewed Washington as a protector in North Asia, not an erratic aggressor. I doubt that’s what Abe meant on Nov. 17 when he said Trump’s words, “renewed my conviction that together with Mr. Trump I will be able to establish a relationship of trust.”

Guilt by association

Consider the gulf between diplomatic reactions to Trump’s election in Tokyo and Berlin. Whereas Abe lavished praise and offered a blank check, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany’s cooperation is contingent upon Trump’s “respect for the law and the dignity of man” regardless of national origin, skin color, religion, sexual orientation and politics. Merkel’s we’ll-see approach didn’t get her an Oval Office handshake (Abe’s cringe-worthy 19-second one went viral). But history will applaud Merkel’s values and frown on Abe’s opportunism if (more likely when) things go pear-shaped.

Abe’s Trump Tower gamble, remember, didn’t save the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It didn’t stop @realDonaldTrump from sending the yen soaring, poking Toyota’s factory-construction plans and conflating Japan and China together as job-killing raiders. And peers in Europe and Asia won’t soon forget the world leader who first legitimized an American CEO who’s looking more and more like a disastrous bet.

There’s still time for Abe to distance himself from a White House in flames. He can start by squandering less political capital on the alternative-fact president 11,000 km away and more addressing Japan’s challenges at home.

William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist and the author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.” Twitter: @williampesek

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