Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump last Friday should be seen as part of the Abe administration’s sustained efforts to ensure that Japan-U.S. relations remain strong, stable and insulated from Trump’s “America First” punitive trade tactics and a destabilization of the decades-long Japan-U.S. alliance that has been the cornerstone of Japan and the region’s security and stability.
Both objectives reflect Japan’s long-term national interests of maintaining strong and vibrant economic ties with the United States, its second largest trade partner. More importantly, ensuring that the Japan-U.S. alliance remains the cornerstone of Japan’s security in the region is critical as the nation faces an increasingly challenging regional environment with North Korea’s acquisition of a strategic nuclear deterrent.
China’s challenging of Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and the endangering of sea lines of communication in the South China Sea with the militarization of artificial islands in international waters, together with the rejection of the July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision comprehensively rejecting all of China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, further bolsters the rationale for deepening the Japan-U.S. alliance.
Remarks by Trump and Abe before their bilateral meeting illustrate Abe’s approach to securing that bilateral relations remain grounded in communicating to Trump Japan’s contributions to the U.S. economy in terms of investment and jobs, but also in highlighting the U.S. security cooperation with Japan in the Indo-Pacific and in dealing with North Korea.
On the economic front, Abe highlighted the role of Japanese businesses investing in the U.S. following Trump’s coming to power. Since 2017, Japanese businesses have invested a total of $23 billion into the economy, created 43,000 jobs and they rank as the top foreign investors and job creators in the U.S.
Even Japan’s blue chip companies such as Toyota have helped buttress Abe’s argument to Trump by pledging to increase their investment into the U.S. from $10 billion to $13 billion over the next five years.
This fact-based narrative plays well to Trump’s dated world view that Japan needs to invest more in the U.S. and that Japan “puts very massive tariffs on agriculture — our agriculture — going for many years, going into Japan. And we want to get rid of those tariffs.” It also plays to Trump’s base in that they are being provided tangible figures that it can relate to, jobs and investment.
Importantly, Abe also stood his ground when Trump made groundless accusations that Japan places tariffs on U.S. automobiles, stressing that “the United States has put on 2.5 percent tariffs on Japanese autos.”
Trump touted the possibility of a quick trade deal in his remarks on his visit with Abe. While not out of the realm of possibility, the reality is that Japan will hold an election in July, making concessions in the agriculture and automobile sector — the areas Trump is hoping to make the most progress in terms of a trade agreement — unlikely compromises for candidates vying for re-election.
The bright side for Japan here is that if the U.S. pushes a trade deal there has been no indication that it would expect greater access to Japan’s agriculture sector than already agreed upon by Japan in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) or the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).
The U.S. agriculture sector has also been negatively effected by Trump’s decision to withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership as Australian, Canadian and New Zealander farmers have been able to quickly insert themselves into the Japanese market. Barring infringement of World Trade Organization rules, Abe has left the door open to find a way to relieve some of the pressure on U.S. farmers in any trade deal going forward while ensuring that any concession by Japan should include the removal of punitive steel tariffs.
Conferring to the U.S. president and first lady the first state visit to Japan in the Reiwa Era and an official visit with the new emperor and empress, Abe is successfully linking Japan to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra by providing ample opportunity to highlight the importance Japan places on their bilateral relationship and, critically, on Trump’s leadership. The same can be said of Abe also stressing the importance of Trump’s attendance at the upcoming Group of 20 summit in Osaka.
Critics will argue that Trump does not deserve these honors and that rather than bringing stability to the Japan-U.S. relationship he has brought instability and a return of Japan’s longtime concern of being abandoned by the U.S.
This is shortsighted. Every opportunity to meet, invest in and highlight the strengths of the Japan-U.S. bilateral relationship serves Japan well. By stressing the U.S.’s value to Japan and by then consistently communicating to the U.S. and, critically, Trump that Japan and the U.S.’s successes are because of their partnership, their shared values and their shared history, not despite it, Tokyo can strengthen its relationship with Washington.
For Abe, his successful meeting with Trump avoided the experiences of other international leaders in their encounters with Trump. Case in point was the fallout between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Trump in the wake of the Group of Seven summit in Canada in 2017. Trudeau fell victim to a Trump Twitter attack and the subsequent souring of bilateral relations. Arguably, the spat contributed to the tactics used to push Canada into signing the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement trade deal. Japan want to avoid a similar fate at all costs.
Administration detractors will argue that this sycophantic behavior of Abe serves Japan poorly and only reinforces Trump’s view that Japan is only using the U.S. to suit its own interests. This myopic view fails to recognize that diplomacy requires leaders to find ways to enhance and build their relations. Part of that process is stressing shared interests, a track record of long-term cooperation and friendship.
Abe has done that while at the same time he has used the unorthodox nature of the Trump presidency to demonstrate Japan’s commitment to top-tier multilateral trade agreements such as the CPTPP and the Japan-EU EPA, and to help shape the evolution of the Indo-Pacific region through the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision.
Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University and a distinguished fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation.