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Tokyo needs distance from Trump train wreck

With each passing day, it's looking like Abe made a seriously risky bet on this White House

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Donald Trump’s presidency is effectively over. Even if he can stay in the White House for 178 more weeks — a huge “if” that grows by the day — his agenda is dead. Caged and paranoid, he’s already descended into flamethrower mode, firing incendiary barbs at every ally in Congress, business, media and abroad he’ll need to achieve anything big.

It’s time for those in Trump’s orbit to assess how much they’ll be diminished by association and do some crisis management. Yes, I’m talking to you, Shinzo Abe.

No world leader embraced Trump faster and with greater enthusiasm than Japan’s. Back in November, Abe’s sprint to Trump Tower was thought to be a geopolitical masterstroke. By flattering and normalizing Trump 10 days after his shock election (“I am convinced Mr. Trump is a leader in whom I can have great confidence,” Abe said Nov. 17), Abe amassed huge political capital. The gesture, Abe hoped, would ensure the Trump White House had Tokyo’s back on security and economic matters and against archrival China.

That capital is plunging in value faster than Trump’s domestic approval ratings. His pathetic handling, and tacit support of, white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, was just as unhinged as his threats against North Korea. That includes Trump lying about how his “fire and fury” shot at Pyongyang went over in Tokyo. “I think Japan is very happy with the job we’re doing,” Trump said Aug. 11. “I think they’re very impressed.” He voiced a similar canard about South Korea: “They probably feel as reassured as they could feel.”

Ah, no — they don’t. Nor is it reassuring that Trump has a new shiny object in his sights: China’s trade surplus. As Trump prepares the Asian trade war that played well on the campaign trail, Japan must batten down the hatches. According to a recent U.S. Conference Board report, China has far more to lose from a tariff tit-for-tat than America. It “doesn’t appear to be a major threat to the U.S. economy,” said Erik Lundh, one of the report’s authors.

I’m less convinced, though, of the contention that Japan will get off easy as Trump scuttles its biggest trading partner. The yen is sure to surge as investors veer toward a “risk off” footing. And Japan could be next. Trump’s worldview, remember, is more 1987 than 2017. To him, Japan is more job-stealing villain than friend.

Don’t forget how often Trump has conflated China’s predatory policies with Japan’s more benign challenge to America. Bottom line, Tokyo is always just one misstep in Trump’s mind, one perceived failure to show gushing fealty, away from its own tariffs.

Abe’s mistake is thinking his relationship with individual leaders trumps ties with broader governments. All those years palling around with President Barack Obama — cementing the U.S. security blanket, visits to Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor, the Trans-Pacific Partnership — were all for naught. That “comfort women” deal with South Korea’s Park Geun-hye? Rejected by her successor. Those cringeworthy photos posing with Australia’s Tony Abbott in front of giant tire? Abe’s bromance was pointless a year later when Abbott was replaced.

The Trump bromance may end even faster. Abe has pulled his punches, but national security circles were blindsided by Trump’s recent North Korea threats — words that put Tokyo and Seoul directly in harm’s way. As Russia investigations heat up and some in Congress talk impeachment, Trump’s behavior is sure to become ever more erratic. His weapon of choice is Twitter, but Trump could scuttle the best run of Japanese growth — six straight quarters — in 11 years via executive order.

If Abe were hoping, meanwhile, that Trump’s military-threat fetish would help him sell constitutional revision, he may have miscalculated. The Diet might now be less likely to enable Abe to send troops abroad. “Trump’s fire and brimstone warmongering rhetoric heightens anxieties in Japan that the Abe doctrine might be very risky,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “His erratic style and lack of consultation with allies generates uncertainty and raises the risk of miscalculations.”

What should Tokyo be doing? There will come a day, of course, when Abe steps down. It may come much sooner than the political establishment expected given deepening scandals and lower-than-Trump support rates. For now, though, Abe as well as Liberal Democratic Party and opposition leaders should be strengthening ties with U.S. institutions that may outlive the Trump dumpster fire — Congress, finance and defense officials, military brass, diplomats and, yes, Vice President Mike Pence’s team. Stealthily, of course. Trump would obliterate Abe on Twitter, slam the Nikkei, and demand Japan pay more U.S. protection money if he got wind Tokyo was hedging its bets.

Loyalty isn’t Trump’s thing. Japan Inc. has invested much in Trumponomics. From Abe’s bow at Trump Tower to SoftBank’s $50 billion investment to Toyota and Mazda pumping $1.6 billion into a U.S. assembly plant, Tokyo took out considerable insurance against Trump’s wrath. But with each passing day, it’s looking like Abenomics made a seriously risky bet on this White House.

William Pesek is an award-winning journalist based in Tokyo and the author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.” Follow him on Twitter: @williampesek