Commentary / Japan

Is Trump's state visit only ceremonial?

by Kuni Miyake

By the time my dear readers see this column, U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania will have enjoyed the first formal state banquet hosted by Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, and Trump on Tuesday will be visiting Yokosuka, where the U.S. 7th Fleet and Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet are based.

When I wrote this piece Sunday night, the U.S. mainstream media had started reporting that Trump’s visit to Tokyo was “mainly ceremonial” while the political environment surrounding him was getting nastier. For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said last Wednesday in Washington that “the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up.”

Ordinary Japanese in Tokyo, who may have no idea who Pelosi is and what the word “cover-up” implies in American politics, seem to have welcomed the U.S. president and first lady. On Sunday, I watched the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament, where Trump presented the President’s Cup to the young Japanese winner of the tournament.

Some of my American friends who know sumo well had been half-jokingly concerned that the Japanese spectators might throw their seat cushions at Trump as he presented the huge trophy. They know that Japanese sumo fans often do so against a grand champion who loses a match to a lower-rank wrestler.

“Don’t you worry,” I said to one of them, “the Japanese are politer. Mr. Trump is not in Europe or the Middle East.”

Having said that, I was not 100 percent sure. Fortunately, nothing awkward happened during the award ceremony. Unlike in Washington, Tokyo’s sumo fans gave Trump and the first lady a standing ovation.

Another American friend of mine asked me some tougher questions before Trump’s arrival in Tokyo.

The first was about the purpose of the state visit. I said it would be more formal, symbolic and ritualistic than substantive, although the two nations have many issues that need to be discussed seriously.

Then he asked me about the trade negotiations. I said that Tokyo was not in a hurry and has no need to be. If an agreement is reached before or on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in June, it should be a package deal that addresses all the issues, including abolishing the new U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum or those to be imposed on automobiles.

He also asked me if the issues of arms sales or host-nation support would be raised by Trump. I said that I would be surprised if they weren’t, although there would be no surprise — meaning no new Japanese concessions. What I meant was that what is more important is not the amount of arms purchased but the quality of the alliance.

My American friend also raised the issues of Iran and China. I said that those are the most important topics to be discussed, probably quietly rather than loudly at the one-on-one meetings, meaning that, as is the case with other similar occasions, the details of very sensitive discussions at the summit level are never publicized.

Finally, he asked me how important the visit would be for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s domestic political needs and whether it serves Trump’s political purposes. I answered that it all depends on the outcome of the meeting, but voters are not fools in Japan or the United States. Diplomatic success won’t guarantee domestic political victories.

Having said that, during Trump’s four-day state visit, I changed my first answer to his question. The visit is by no means symbolic and ceremonial, nor should it be so. The visit is not personal. It is for the U.S. president and it’s taking place when the strategic environment surrounding Japan has started to change dramatically.

Those changes include the return of China and Iran to dominate East Asia and the Middle East, respectively, as well as the political uncertainties in the U.S. This means we are entering a new era where we are simultaneously witnessing the rise of two powerful status-quo changers and the decline of the strongest status-quo power.

Looking back on the past half a century, it was in 1979 when the world changed again. That was the year when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Iranians ended the shah’s rule and established an Islamic Republic, and China started its open-door policy with state capitalism.

Forty years later, the Soviets have gone but the Russians are back. The West believed that economic development would create a civil society in China that would eventually democratize the entire nation. We thought Iran’s Islamic Republic would eventually fall. We have been wrong for the past four decades.

No matter what the Japanese and American governments announced as an outcome of this state visit, the real issue between the two leaders was how to define the common strategic interests that the two nations share both in the Middle East and East Asia, and then to refine the modalities to mutually maximize them.

This is not to suggest that the North Korean abduction issue is no longer a major concern for the Japanese people. On the contrary, as the late U.S. politician Tip O’Neil stated, “all politics is local,” and the issue will continue to be one of the top priorities in Japan’s domestic politics in the years to come.

Simply put, however, compared to China and Iran, North Korea is just an episode in a new great game in the Middle East and East Asia. It can be called a new hegemonic game in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific as well. No matter what it’s called, the two regions are becoming one theater of operation.

It is high time for Japan and the U.S. to elevate the level of strategic discussions to a practical and enforceable dimension. If Abe and Trump have done that, all the better. If not, we must seriously consider doing it. There are and should be some things more important than rituals and ceremonies in state visits.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.