Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump will play golf in Japan in November. That will take place when Japan’s old – and after Tokyo’s Lower House election of October 22 also new – Prime Minister Abe will host Trump on November 5-7 on the first leg of his Asia trip. Yet another occasion for Abe to demonstrate that he agrees on essentially “everything” with the short-tempered Trump, who continues to conduct domestic and foreign policies mainly over Twitter in the early hours of the day. Indeed, given the Trump-Abe bilateral meeting track record of 2017, Trump’s visit to Japan could be the feel good part of Trump’s Asia trip. To be sure, who knows what Trump will come up with before, during or after the meeting with Abe in Tokyo. Judging from Trump’s previous and numerous nonsensical verbal bombshells, he could – like he did in the past – suggest Japan to develop and deploy nuclear weapons to defend itself against what Trump called the “Little Rocket Man” in Pyongyang. Or maybe this time around Trump will keep his inner monologues to himself and will have the good sense not to bring Japanese nuclear armament onto the meeting’s agenda.
Talking to Trump could in any event get uncomfortable for Abe if the U.S. President decided to request Tokyo to further open up the Japanese automobile and agricultural markets to U.S. companies. Ironically or indeed sadly the opening of Japan’s agricultural and automobile markets were back in late 2016 already agreed upon between Washington under then President Obama and Tokyo. At the time, the U.S. and Japan eliminated the outstanding hurdles for the U.S. and Japan to sign and adopt the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an inter-regional multilateral free trade agreement. Trump then decided on day one in office in January 2017 to terminate U.S. membership in the TPP, which meant that problems and controversies on market access and tariffs would inevitably make it back onto the U.S.-Japanese trade agenda. Details, however, on what Trump might and might not seek to discuss with Abe on bilateral trade are yet very scarce, not least because the President has after 10 months in office yet to fill many key senior positions dealing with Asian trade and politics in the U.S. State Department.
Tokyo on the other hand has all the personnel and trade arguments in place, but Trump’s ill-fated and protectionist “America-First” megaphone diplomacy has probably sent enough shock-waves towards Tokyo for Japanese policymakers to remember how disturbing they sound. On various occasions on the election campaign trail Trump turned to aggressive Japan-bashing rhetoric of the 1980s portraying Japan as a security and bilateral trade free rider. Furthermore, he publicly threatened to withdraw U.S. military troops from Japan if Tokyo did not increase its financial contributions to the stationing of U.S. military on Japanese soil. After Trump terminated the U.S. commitment to the above-mentioned TPP agreement Washington helped to negotiate for 10 years, Abe has so far made all the right calls to stay on Trump’s good side. Over the last 10 months, the Japanese Prime Minister announced to increase Japanese investments in the U.S. and has – unlike many of his predecessors – resisted the temptation to put the issue of reducing Japanese financial contributions to the stationing of U.S. military on Japanese territory (Tokyo pays roughly $2 billion per year, shouldering 75-80% of the overall stationing costs) onto the U.S.- Japan bilateral policy agenda. Finally, Abe was probably the only political leader in and beyond Asia who has not openly criticized Trump for cancelling U.S. membership in the TPP and also kept quiet when Trump announced to leave the Paris Climate Agreement earlier this year.
Trump, however, is reportedly also planning to give Abe what he wants. Tokyo confirmed that the U.S. President is expected to meet with the families of Japanese citizens who were abducted from Japan to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. According to media reports, Abe arranged for Trump to meet the parents of Megumi Yokota, who at the age of 13 was abducted by North Korean secret service agents from her hometown of Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast in November 1977. Ever since Pyongyang in 2002 officially admitted to have abducted a number of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to “employ” them as Japanese language instructors for the country’s secret service, Abe made it his personal mission, sometimes obsession, to request Pyongyang to provide Tokyo with reliable information (as opposed to the kind of bogus information Pyongyang provided) on the fate of the abducted Japanese citizens. Tokyo maintains that up to 35 Japanese citizens were kidnapped at the time. The so-called “Abduction Issue” remains very close to the heart of the Japanese Prime Minister, who essentially flags that issue every time he talks about the “evil” North Korea. In fact, in the past Abe was at times accused of being more interested in talking about the fate of Japanese kidnapped citizens than the danger posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes. Trump’s meeting with the parents of a kidnapped Japanese girl, of course, is not going to make any difference whatsoever to Pyongyang’s preparedness to provide Tokyo with information on the fate of kidnapped Japanese citizens.
Speaking of North Korea, Abe and his government took great pride over recent months to point out that Abe was speaking to Trump over the phone on a de facto daily basis on North Korea at the height of the ongoing nuclear crisis. Over the last 10 months, Abe and Trump have held three summit meetings and 12 teleconferences on North Korea and reportedly always found themselves in perfect agreement on how to handle the country: threatening military action while de facto excluding to talk to North Korea.
That, however, is not a policy but a shooting- from-the-hip sound bite and Abe seems to forget that Tokyo (and not Washington) is within reach of Pyongyang ballistic missiles. If un-intercepted, North Korean ballistic missiles can reach downtown Tokyo in less than 10 minutes. Hence, jumping and travelling on Trump’s North Korea-bashing train could turn out to be very dangerous if North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un decided to make good on his threat to attack Japan rather sooner than later.
Axel Berkofsky, Co-head, ISPI Asia Center