Trump and Abe: Unshakeable Bond In The Face Of The Sino-US Trade War?

U.S. President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo feeding Koi Fish during Trump's Japan visit/ Image: CNN

The Japanese Prime Minister, Abe Shinzo, aimed to show the world the power of what he called the “unshakeable bond” that he shares with the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, during the official state visit of the latter to Japan from May 25 to May 28, 2019. Trump undertook the four-day visit, along with the First Lady of the United States, Melania Trump. This made them the first state guests to meet with the new Japanese Emperor Naruhito since his enthronement on May 1, 2019. Amidst the growing tensions surrounding the trade war between China and the United States and the potential security threat to the region from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Trump’s visit to Japan was an opportunity for Abe to continue pursuing Japanese interests using the tools of diplomacy available to him. While the successes of Abe’s efforts were arguably minimal, one would be naive to ignore the visit within the wider global context.

The ‘America First’ policy of the Trump administration is something that has been the cause of concern for a number of American allies. There is little doubt in the minds of political leaders, diplomats, scholars and journalists that Trump is a president who sees diplomacy as more of a personal venture rather than a state endeavour. This is an observation that has not escaped the notice of Abe, who has taken every possible measure since his appointment to ensure an excellent relationship with Trump. This includes breaking protocol and meeting Trump when he was a president-elect, a significant number of personal interactions with Trump in the last few years, not denying sending what Trump called a “beautiful letter” to the Nobel Peace Prize committee and attempting to be a host who ensured his guest felt at home by putting cheeseburgers made from American Angus beef during Trump’s first state visit to Japan in 2017. It was no surprise that Abe took this opportunity as well to continue the flattery that he has extended towards Trump, clearly expecting the relationship to yield results that would help him fulfil Japanese interests. Keeping in mind the frivolity of American alliances under Trump’s leadership, it is obvious that Abe believes it is of utmost importance for Japan to remain on good terms with Trump, especially when the global markets can potentially suffer due to the trade war between China and the United States. Kuniko Iniguchi, a member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and the upper house of the Japanese Parliament claimed that Japan is “flattered” by American support because the Japanese have an assumption that people don’t care about them and Trump’s support indicates otherwise.

“In the new era of Reiwa, U.S. and Japan must lead for the peace and prosperity of the region and international community as the genuinely global partners,” said Prime Minister Abe in the joint press conference held in Akasaka Palace, Tokyo during the visit. “The visit of President and Madam Trump to Japan is a golden opportunity to clearly show the unshakeable bond to the whole world and inside Japan as well.” Emperor Naruhito’s ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne after the abdication of his father Emperor Akihito marked the beginning of the new Japanese era which was named ‘Reiwa’, which the government said meant ‘beautiful harmony.’ Prime Minister Abe very clearly indicated through his words and actions during Trump’s visit that he wishes for the US-Japan relationship to exhibit traits associated with the concept. A display of the ‘unshakeable bond’ would clearly reaffirm American commitment to upholding Japanese interests globally, and be a factor for consideration in the upcoming Japanese elections at the domestic level.

Donald Trump becomes first world leader to meet Japanese Emperor Naruhito/ Image: AFP

Prime Minister Abe attempted to strengthen the alliance by spending time with Trump on the golf course, inside a sumo arena where Trump presented a trophy to the winner, at a state banquet following a meeting with the Japanese Emperor and Empress and at a robatayaki dinner with their spouses. Despite Abe’s reiteration of friendship between the two countries throughout the visit, the joint press conference showed that the right questions could shake the foundations of the “unshakeable bond.” President Trump earlier tweeted that progress had been made in trade negotiations with Japan but most of the negotiations would have to wait until the July elections. Trump’s harping on the imbalance of Japan-U.S. trade continued in the press conference and the threat of tariffs still continues to loom. The tariffs are a cause of concern for the Japanese economy and many would have hoped Abe’s hospitality would lead to some form of definite answer regarding the future regarding the same. The imposition of tariffs on cars and auto parts which is against Japanese interest is still under discussion between Japanese minister Toshimitsu Motegi and U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Robert Lighthizer and no definitive agreement has been reached yet. On the issue of Sino-U.S. negotiations, Prime Minister Abe clearly stated that a stable Sino-U.S. economic relationship “would benefit not only Japan but the Asian countries and to the whole world.” With a 18.3% increase in exports to China and a 7.5% increase in exports to the United States in the fiscal year 2017 compared to the fiscal year 2016, it is clear why it is in Japan’s interest that a stable Sino-U.S. economic relationship is maintained, especially considering the fiscal year 2018 has not been that great for Japan in terms of exports. While the military might of China can be concerning for Japan, an attack on the Chinese economy could prove detrimental to Japan’s progress as well. Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations claimed that “China is – and will be – an indispensable economic partner for Japan.”

Another issue of significance was the threat of North Korea. Prime Minister Abe claimed that he and Trump were “completely on the same page” regarding North Korea but Trump was quick to dismiss any threat that may be posed by North Korea’s recent short-range ballistic missile tests, which could potentially kill thousands of Japanese civilians if fired at Japan. For Trump, the reason to celebrate is that Kim Jong-Un has complied and not conducted nuclear and long-range tests while making a statement calling Joe Biden “a low-IQ individual.” Abe decided to publicly put faith in Trump’s vision for the Korean peninsula but he made it absolutely clear that as neighbours to North Korea, Japan was “most threatened among countries” and expressed “great regret” for North Korea’s violation of the Security Council resolution by the launching of a short-range ballistic missile on 9 May 2019. The issue of North Korean abduction of Japanese citizens remains a high priority objective for Prime Minister Abe and he stated that he is willing to hold a Japan-Korea Summit meeting to resolve the issue. Trump confirmed that the United States was “committed to the issue of abductions” and he met with the family members of the abducted victims, following which he confirmed to support Japanese efforts in bringing back the abductees.

Prime Minister Abe also took the opportunity to state that “between Japan and the United States, there should be close collaboration so that this tension surrounding Iran should be mitigated and alleviated, and it shouldn’t culminate in the armed conflict.” While the Japanese Prime Minister is due to visit Iran next week in hopes of acting as a mediator and engineering a diplomatic breakthrough to ensure peace and stability in the Middle East, Trump during his visit told reporters “we’ll see what happens.” Usually, the President is known to have used that phrase to buy time to make important geopolitical decisions, but in this particular case, one could assume he almost exhibits a lack of hope in Japan’s ability to mediate the issue.

The challenging trade talks between Japan and the United States cannot be avoided forever, and Prime Minister Abe clearly has a testing time ahead of him. The President and the First Lady’s visit to Japan was largely symbolic, and an additional opportunity to build on the personal relationship that the two leaders share. Trump is supposed to visit Japan again next month for the Group of 20 meeting in Osaka and there will be several other interactions which must address the impact of American trade policy and its impacts on the global market. Prime Minister Abe must hope that his personal investment in building a strong friendship with Trump is rewarded and Trump values Japan as the most important ally in Asia. Until then, the issue of tariffs and complacency regarding North Korea can possibly make the “unshakeable bond” sound like a minor exaggeration.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Rahul Das

Rahul Das is a Research Intern at The Kootneeti. In addition, he's currently a third-year undergraduate, pursuing History and International Relations from Ashoka University, India. He can be reached at rahul.das_ug20@ashoka.edu.in

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