Commentary / Japan

Has Abe's summit diplomacy paid off?

by Yuki Tatsumi

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is hosting the Group of 20 summit in Osaka through Saturday. The leaders of 20 countries that include the United States, China and Russia have gathered to discuss issues ranging from the global economy, innovation and woman’s empowerment to the environment and health.

Being the longest-serving prime minister in postwar Japan, Abe has become a constant presence at multilateral forums like the G20. Indeed, emphasizing personal relationships with world leaders by actively engaging them, including holding frequent summit meetings, has been one of the features of his diplomatic style.

Summit diplomacy is not new to Abe. In fact, two of his predecessors, Yasuhiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi — both known for their long tenures in office — used diplomatic styles similar to Abe by focusing on personal relationships with the leaders of countries they deemed important, as evidenced by Nakasone’s “Ron-Yasu” relationship with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Koizumi’s “Junichiro-George” relationship with U.S. President George W. Bush.

Under Abe’s watch, however, this kind of top-down diplomatic style has been firmly embraced. Even compared with Nakasone and Koizumi, Abe has been particularly active as a “diplomat in chief,” visiting over 80 countries and regions since he returned to power in December 2012.

As active as Abe has been, however, it is debatable whether his summit diplomacy has brought any concrete success. In fact, the results have been mixed at best. On the issues that Abe has shown personal interest, in particular, his diplomatic style of investing time and energy in developing strong personal relationships with the leaders have not earned him any major diplomatic victory.

Take Japan-Russia relations for instance. Abe’s interest in resolving the Northern Territories issue has been clear from the beginning of his current tenure. Abe hoped to make progress by trying to develop strong personal ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2016. His effort culminated in his invitation to Putin to visit his home prefecture of Yamaguchi despite U.S.-Russia tension running high at the time over the worsening situation in Syria.

Although the two leaders agreed to address the territorial issue under the context of peace treaty negotiations that are based on a “future-oriented new approach,” no real progress has been made almost 24 months later. If anything, with the continuous expansion of its military presence in the Northern Territories, including conducting military exercises, Russia has become a major spoiler of the agreed negotiation process.

North Korea issues have not fared much better. Despite Abe’s repeated demonstration of interest in meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a one-on-one meeting, Abe remains the only leader in Northeast Asia who has not met Kim. Even with Abe now saying he is open to meeting him”without preconditions” — a major change in his rhetoric on North Korea as Abe seems to be interested in following Trump’s approach of trying to break the stalemate by direct engagement at the leadership level — the prospects for him to have a summit with Kim are slim at best.

And then there is Japan’s bilateral relationship with the U.S. Abe has invested considerable time and energy in developing a strong personal relationship with President Donald Trump. Starting from flying to New York when Trump was still president-elect, Abe’s courtship culminated when Trump visited Japan as the first state guest following the imperial succession.

Yet despite Abe’s efforts, the Trump administration’s pressure on Japan on trade has not eased. Although Trump gave a little breathing room to Abe when he indicated that he did not expect the trade negotiations to conclude until “after August,” saving Abe from the risk of facing domestic criticism before the Upper House election in July, there is no indication that the U.S. position on trade is softening as Trump nears the start of the 2020 presidential campaign.

Media reports on Trump commenting to his staff about his frustration with the “unfair” alliance with Japan also revealed that all of the time Abe spent with Trump has not changed his view on these issues despite all the U.S. weapons systems that Japan decided to purchase. And it will be under the watch of Trump, whose view on alliances remains transactional, that Japan must negotiate the renewal of host-nation support with the U.S. next year.

This presents an inconvenient truth for Abe: Seven years and over 80 overseas visits later, he has no tangible foreign policy achievements and there is little prospect of this reality changing. Abe has said the focus of next month’s Upper House election is “whether Japan can sustain its current stability or it recedes back to confusion.” While that is certainly true, the clock may be ticking for Abe to point to the stability that can justify his remaining in power.

Yuki Tatsumi is co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. She is also a senior fellow at Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.