Abe capitalizes on election win and growing global standing U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at their news conference in Tokyo on Nov. 6. (Pool) U.S. President Donald Trump’s trip to Asia could not be higher-stakes for an administration seeking to change the narrative from the ongoing Russia scandal, the first indictments of which were handed down in Washington last week. In contrast to his continued troubles at home, Trump faces newly empowered Asian hosts including Japanese Prime Minister Abe, who strengthened his hand with a resounding election victory, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who had an even better month as he consolidated his power over China. By kicking off his trip in friendly territory with a visit to Japan and his closest international ally Abe, Trump understands how Tokyo is becoming the center for geopolitics. A year ago, if you had told us that the strongest leader of a major advanced industrial economy would not be the American president, not the German chancellor, nor the British prime minister but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe we would have called you crazy — but this is the current reality.
Abe has been the rare international leader to immediately embrace President Trump — and has sought a close relationship more than any other American ally. Early on, this strategy has paid dividends as Trump makes Japan his first stop on his inaugural Asia trip as commander-in-chief. However, the American president has already jettisoned one of Abe’s top priorities in the bilateral relationship — successful conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. He now seems to have his sights set on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which would have serious consequences for Japanese corporations’ planning and supply chains throughout the region. The Trump administration seems fixated on trade deficits and is guided by a sense of economic nationalism that even a bilateral U.S.-Japan free trade agreement would not fix.
Trump stopped at Pearl Harbor enroute to Japan, where he landed at Yokota military base.Through his full-throated praise for America’s forward deployed military and pivot to make the case to Japan’s top business leaders to buy and invest more in America, Trump is playing to his base at home and hoping to cash in on his strong relationship with Abe. Judging by the logo on the specialty hats Abe had made for his golf outing with Trump, “Donald & Shinzo: Make the Alliance Even Greater,” there seems to be a clear alignment.
While Japan’s national interest requires a close alignment with the U.S., the possibility of accidents with North Korea have escalated and the need for further cooperation with China and South Korea has never been more important. Abe’s relationship with Trump is necessarily asymmetrical, and not just because of the power imbalance: For Abe, the relationship is rooted in both a commitment to the foundations of the U.S.-Japan alliance and to Trump’s presidency; for Trump, it’s purely the utility of the personal ties with Abe. This imbalance will not serve Japan’s long-term national interest if the U.S. becomes further isolated by Trump’s behavior or rhetoric (including Twitter) in and toward the region and beyond.
Abe’s newfound strength
Unfortunately, Japan’s China relationship is set to become more problematic under the next Abe administration thanks in no small part to his best buddy Trump’s visit to the region. In part, this comes from Abe’s own personal mistrust of Beijing, but this will be compounded by the deterioration of U.S.-China ties that seems to have already begun. Trump has so far largely set aside his trade concerns with China on the basis of Beijing’s cooperation to pressure North Korea on its nuclear and ballistic missile development. This cannot last. China cannot “deliver” a North Korean climbdown and will be unwilling to take the kind of heightened steps (like cutting off all energy shipments) that would risk North Korean escalation or implosion. Yet Trump’s comments in Tokyo regarding the possible return of Japanese citizens abducted by the North Korean regime are a significant win. Longer term, this is not about starting World War III.
Encouragingly for Japan, Abe’s foreign policy strategy is not only about the U.S. He has made a strong and successful effort to develop an unusually warm relationship with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as well as championing expanded Japanese diplomatic ties and state-supported investment across Southeast Asia and beyond. Indeed, Abe has an unusually close set of relations with the world’s most interesting strongmen, from Russian President Putin to Turkish President Erdogan to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, that has been strategically useful for Japan and would have been impossible to accomplish for a series of weaker Japanese leaders. Combined with his newfound domestic strength, Abe has a historic opportunity to balance his foreign policy by globalizing the U.S.-Japan alliance in such a way that benefits his own priorities moving forward.
Japan’s private sector has never been more attractive from a global perspective, with significant financial capital and multinational companies eager to make major new investments abroad. Now that Abe is unchallenged until 2021, the potential for public-private partnership that is already characteristic of “Japan Inc.” has never been higher. This interest and engagement of Japanese political, business, and thought leaders on critical geopolitical issues is one of the reasons we decided to hold our inaugural Geopolitical Summit in Tokyo on Oct. 26, and we hope to continue these fruitful discussion in Tokyo in the years to come.