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The failure of Abe’s Trump-dependent diplomacy

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “diplomacy with a bird’s eye view of the globe” is going nowhere. Despite its grandiose slogan, his diplomacy is in essence a strategy that depends entirely on the United States. But with the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump going astray and putting Western alliances at risk of falling apart, the Abe administration seems to be at a loss. While Abe has opened up two new fronts in his diplomacy — exploring conclusion of a formal peace treaty with Russia and seeking to improve ties with China — there is little or no hope that much can be achieved in these areas, either.

On North Korea, which poses the most pressing security threat to Japan, Abe has gone no further than repeating Trump’s call for China to exert influence over Pyongyang, and has not been able to draw up a credible scenario of defending Japan against North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. As his dominant grip on power at home becomes shaky and domestic politics turn more inward-looking, Abe’s diplomacy faces the risk of coming to an end without tangible accomplishments.

The Group of 20 summit held in Hamburg, Germany, in July appeared to shed light on the dearth of Japan’s diplomatic presence. Abe’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was supposed to become a highlight of his presence at the summit. But the start of their talks was delayed by 90 minutes because Putin’s previous session with Trump lasted longer than scheduled, leaving little time for Abe and Putin to hold in-depth discussions.

Japan was not briefed by the U.S. on the Trump-Putin talks, because Trump was accompanied only by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the meeting. Many of the senior positions at the State Department remain vacant, tentatively filled by career diplomats. A U.S. diplomatic source laments that the channel of diplomatic communication between Tokyo and Washington has vanished, noting that it would be normal for the U.S. to inform a close ally like Japan of the outcome of talks with countries like Russia and China, just as Japan would let the U.S. know of what Tokyo has discussed with these governments. Traditionally in Washington, matters related to Japan have been in the hands of the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, a position occupied by such experts in Japanese affairs as Winston Lord, Richard Armitage and Kurt Campbell. That post, however, has not been filled under the Trump administration, creating a vacuum in Washington’s Japan diplomacy.

Until Abe met with Putin last December in his native Yamaguchi Prefecture, his administration was quite confident of making significant progress in the talks with Russia for return of the islands off Hokkaido seized by Soviet forces in 1945 — a dispute that has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from concluding a formal World War II peace treaty. In that meeting, however, Putin made no concession on the issue, and the two leaders ended up agreeing to promote bilateral economic cooperation instead. Abe and Putin have since met twice, but progress on the territorial dispute and conclusion of the peace treaty remains elusive.

Abe appeared to place emphasis on improving relations with Russia to become a historic legacy of his administration. His rapprochement with Putin even as Russia’s relations with Western powers were strained over its annexation of Crimea and the Ukraine crisis was frowned upon by the European Union and the then-U.S. administration of President Barack Obama. One U.S. diplomatic source had expressed concern that Tokyo’s seeking of better ties with Moscow might create difficulties in the otherwise favorable Japan-U.S. relations. Such a concern, however, eventually proved unwarranted, because Tokyo-Moscow relations did not develop as hoped by Abe, whose diplomacy with Russia has since hit a snag. The U.S. source warns that Japan may find itself in a bind on how to respond should another international dispute involving Russia take place.

What has led Japan to this foreign policy outcome? The answer lies in Abe’s move in February to become the first among world leaders to hold talks with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida and play golf with him, clearly showing his “Trump First” stance. It is indeed important for the leader of Japan to place top priority on consolidating ties with the new U.S. administration at a time when China is expanding its military clout in the East and South China Seas, and North Korea continues to pursue its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

But Trump is unbridled and unconventional beyond the imagination of diplomatic elites like Shotaro Yachi, Abe’s national security adviser who arranged the February summit. The Japanese side hoped that Trump would eventually be tamed by the U.S. diplomatic establishment. Such wishful thinking has proven to be unrealistic, however, when it comes to the Trump’s administration’s response to the North Korea problem.

Trump kept calling on China to exert its influence over Pyongyang. When Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Trump in April, he appeared to take a tough stand against the North in compliance with the U.S. president’s urging. But once it became clear that the U.S. had no intention of launching a military intervention against Pyongyang, China changed its attitude. In a telephone conversation in early July prior to the G-20 summit, Xi told Trump to stop making China accountable for North Korea’s aggressive behaviors, warning that otherwise the issue would negatively affect Washington-Beijing relations. China now claims that it was the U.S. that cornered Pyongyang and provoked its actions, and that Washington therefore is responsible for ending the crisis.

Whether or not he was aware of these changes, Abe repeated to Xi on the sidelines of the G-20 summit Trump’s pet theme that China is responsible for taming North Korea, drawing a bitter reaction from Xi. Although the matter was little discussed in the Japanese government’s briefing to the media, Xi is said to have told Abe that Japan should stop aiding countries that are disputing Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea, refrain from making unnecessary moves regarding Taiwan, and avoid making any provocations in the East China Sea.

Abe’s diplomacy with South Korea, another key to dealing with North Korea, hit an impasse from the outset. When Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, visited Seoul as Abe’s emissary on June 12, newly elected President Moon Jae-in told him that the South Korean public cannot accept the agreement that his predecessor Park Geun-hye concluded with Japan on the “comfort women” issue. This position of Moon, which was reiterated in his talks with Abe on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, clashed head-on with Tokyo’s stand that the agreement resolved the issue “finally and irreversibly.”

Even more serious is Moon’s repeated call for a direct dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The Trump administration’s strategy of changing Pyongyang’s mind by applying pressure would work only if Japan, the U.S., China and South Korea act in unison. It seems clear that China and South Korea have dropped out of this effort. If Beijing and Seoul are no longer intimidated by the North’s muscle-flexing, nobody will pay serious attention to what the Abe administration does anymore. Indeed, there has been no contact between Japan and North Korea since June last year, when Kenji Kanasugi, chief of the Asia-Pacific Affairs Bureau of the Foreign Ministry, met in Beijing with Choe Son Hui, deputy head of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s American Bureau.

The Abe administration’s diplomacy thus appears to have run into an impasse in various fronts. Until a recent past, that policy appeared to be working because the Obama administration, even though it wavered on some matters, succeeded in keeping a solid alliance among the U.S., Europe and Japan on crucial issues such as sanctions on Russia and the Paris climate change agreement. But Abe ran into trouble when he tried to do the same thing after Trump came to power.

Once the diplomatic landscape changes, doubts begin to emerge as to what global views or values are behind Abe’s foreign policy. Even though he claims that democracy is the value that drives his diplomacy, the prime minister has not uttered a word that impressed people around the world on humanitarian or human rights issues, such as the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the civil war in Yemen and the death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Chinese democracy advocate.

As Abe started it, only he can change the reliance of Japan’s diplomacy on Trump. It is hoped that before he retires, he will make sure his successor is free from this quandary.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the August issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. More English articles can be read at www.sentaku-en.com