Carlos Barria / REUTERS U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wave while boarding Air Force One as they depart for Palm Beach, Florida, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, February 2017. 

Abe Wins Over Trump

The Future of the U.S.-Japanese Alliance

Forget the golfing. The most enduring images from last week’s summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were photos posted to Facebook showing the two leaders at dinner with their wives in public, surrounded by a bevy of aides bringing them news of North Korea’s ballistic missile test. The ad hoc and controversial national security cooperation, carried out in full view of other diners, was followed by an impromptu press conference, where Japan’s leader spoke first. Far from seeming an insignificant partner in a decades-old alliance that has never really been tested by a crisis, Abe instead appeared as the steady and trustworthy friend of a disorganized new president facing his first challenge from one of the world’s most dangerous nations.

Even before the North Korean launch, the summit had been billed as the first personal meeting between Trump and a foreign leader. British Prime Minister Theresa May could claim being the first foreign leader, and ally, to meet Trump, but it was Abe who received the presidential seal of approval by being invited along with his wife to fly down to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and spend part of a weekend golfing with the president, while the first lady toured a botanical garden with Akie Abe, the premier’s wife.

Gone were the threats by the new president to walk away from the alliance if the Japanese did not pay more to host U.S. troops and increase their own defense budget. Little was said about the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump also told Abe that, in spite of earlier comments, he did not consider Japan to be engaged in currency manipulation. Instead, the simple message was that Abe had become Trump’s first true foreign ally.

Abe’s success comes from a single-minded desire to avoid controversy with Trump and to portray Japan as the United States’ willing partner. It is not very different from the approach he took with former President Barack Obama, but the personal relationship between Abe and Trump has already become far closer than the one he had with Obama. Whether out of instinct or a careful reading of Trump’s personality, Abe concluded that politics with Trump will be personal. Thus, he offered with alacrity to meet Trump just days after his election, flying to New York in a bid to get Trump to look him in the eye and size him up. Given the lukewarm reception that Trump received from other heads of government, Abe’s outreach was all the more welcome. 

Moreover, unlike fellow world leaders, such as Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Abe refrained from publicly criticizing any of Trump’s early actions. Instead, he made clear that Tokyo wanted to help Trump succeed at home, and came across the Pacific bearing a list of proposed Japanese investments worth $450 billion that would help create up to 700,000 high-tech U.S. jobs in areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, cyber, and space. However likely it is that so many Americans will find employment thanks to Japan’s largesse is beside the point; Abe understands that you have to be willing to make deals with a dealmaker. This is interests-based diplomacy, and it is a realism that so far has served the prime minister well.

Abe did not just come bearing gifts, however; he also walked away with the one thing Japan wanted above all. Following on Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s visit to Tokyo the week before, Trump reiterated that the United States would defend all territory under Japan’s administrative control. This refers primarily to the Senkaku Islands, known in China as the Diaoyu Islands, whose sovereignty China disputes and which since 2010 have been the primary flashpoint in the East China Sea. Worried that the Trump administration might reduce the United States’ military commitments in Asia, the Japanese sought an unambiguous reaffirmation of U.S. support.

PRESSING PRIORITIES 

With the two leaders now on a comparatively intimate level of diplomatic relations, the question turns to what the U.S.-Japanese alliance policy priorities will be going forward. There are at least four areas that Washington and Tokyo will have to focus on, finding a common policy acceptable to both.

First is North Korea. The missile launch that interrupted the social night out was a foretaste of Pyongyang’s ability to throw a monkey wrench into regional relations. While the chances that the Kim Jong Un regime will decide to gamble its existence on an invasion of South Korea or an attack on Japan is low to nonexistent, Tokyo cannot afford to pretend that Pyongyang is not a threat. An errant missile, the sinking of a Japanese cargo ship, or a major cyberattack all are possibilities from a regime that consistently tests the boundaries of what its neighbors will accept while attempting to intimidate them. Trump may have stated that he will deal “very strongly” with North Korea, but his national security team, rocked by the resignation of General Michael Flynn, will need to come up with a specific set of instructions to U.S. military forces abroad. In particular, both Japan and South Korea will want to know that the Trump administration will be willing to punish Pyongyang for any aggression, unlike the Obama White House.

Both Japan and South Korea will want to know that the Trump administration will be willing to punish Pyongyang for any aggression.

Second is Chinese maritime pressure. Abe may have received reassurance that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands will be protected by the alliance, but Beijing is unlikely suddenly to give up challenging Japan’s control. The number of Chinese ship incursions and aerial fly-bys of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands remain at near-record levels, forcing Japan to maintain a constant state of readiness to respond. Beijing might also attempt to enforce more rigorously its 2014 air defense identification zone, thereby raising the specter of an aerial confrontation. Similarly, in the South China Sea, China’s continued militarization of its reclaimed islands and intimidation of other nations feeds the impression that it is gradually gaining the ability to control the strategic waterways. Both Washington and Tokyo must determine how to respond to Chinese belligerence, whether through increased freedom of navigation operations, shadowing of Chinese ships and planes, or greater aid to smaller nations attempting to maintain their operational flexibility. This may be a challenge even for Abe, who so far has avoided getting involved in the South China Sea, and who is focused above all on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Third is a more comprehensive cyber policy. Both Japan and the United States remain victims of Chinese cyber-aggression, and Beijing’s promises to clamp down on cyberattacks have not resulted in a more secure cyber environment. This remains a threat not only to both governments but to the businesses and critical infrastructure of both nations. Just as North Korea continues to perfect its nuclear and ballistic missile capability, China continues to probe and test cyber weaknesses in Japan and the United States. A more robust cyberdefense is needed, and the two nations should be collaborating on how to protect their vital systems and companies, as well as consider how to poke back at China.

Finally, trade remains a possible area of contention. Though Trump avoided bringing up the question of free trade, the issue lingers. Quiet negotiations will be needed to ensure that there is no repeat of the trade wars of the 1990s. Instead, the two sides should quickly begin negotiating a bilateral free trade pact, while keeping open the possibility of revising the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In conjunction with Abe’s promised Japan-U.S. Growth and Employment Initiative, the two have an opportunity to promote an even closer economic relationship, one that may become more important as China’s economy slows. 

As first meetings go, the Trump-Abe summit was a near flawless exercise. Turmoil within the Trump administration and crises in other parts of the globe should not be allowed to overshadow what might turn out to be one of the handful of most important global relationships over the next decade.

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