- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has invested time and energy in courting President Donald Trump.
- But Trump’s diplomatic and economic initiatives have undercut Abe, who is facing political turmoil at home.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried hard to court President Donald Trump.
In Trump’s first year in office, the pair bonded over golf in Japan and the US and talked on the phone more than a dozen times, in addition to several in-person meetings. Both are political conservatives and share a hardline stance on North Korea.
But Trump’s diplomatic initiatives in Asia have often left Japan in the lurch – a dynamic underscored by the recent whirlwind events around Trump’s proposed meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump’s habit of “saying whatever is on his mind without being advised by experts around him and using that tactically to try to improve his negotiating deal, does tend to undermine long-term relationships, and that has just as much affect on American partners in Asia as it does on anywhere else,” Ian Bremmer, president of geopolitical-risk firm Eurasia Group, told Business Insider on Monday.
“But the country that’s stuck is Japan, because of course Abe has made it very clear that his best relationship, his most important relationship, is with the United States,” Bremmer said. “He’s the one that immediately got on a plane to visit Trump after the election occurred, and yet when Trump decided he was going to meet with Kim Jong Un, he didn’t bother to tell the Japanese.”
Trump didn’t tell his Japanese counterpart that he had agreed to meet the North Korean leader until after accepting the offer, sharing the news in a call as the South Korean envoys who delivered the invitation announced the news outside the White House – and all this came hours after Abe learned Trump would impose high steel and aluminum tariffs on countries including Japan.
“Now when the Japanese reached out and called me and asked me about it, a little freaked out, my response was, ‘Look, he didn’t even tell his secretary of state, so don’t take it personally,'” Bremmer said. Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of state, was out of a job just a few days later.
“But still if you’re Abe, this makes you look bad, and it’s a bad time for Abe,” Bremmer added. “He’s got a massive scandal at home, this Moritomo issue. His popularity is down to 30%, so he’s going to get on the plane now, immediately come to the United States and see if he can figure this out. It’s not good for him.”
Abe has been implicated in a scandal around the sale of a parcel of land to the private educational institute Moritomo Gakuen, which acquired a 9,000-square-meter property for $1.2 million – one-tenth of the cost of similar plots nearby. Allegations have been made that Moritomo got a favorable deal because of connections to Abe’s wife, who was made honorary principal of the new school but swiftly resigned when details about the deal came to light.
As with Trump’s agreement to meet Kim, Japan again appears to have been left out of the loop about the North Korean leader’s meeting with Chinese officials in Beijing this week.
US officials said the White House received a call from the Chinese on Tuesday morning, while South Korea said on Wednesday that it had been briefed on the visit by Beijing. Japan, however, reportedly had to ask China for information about the meeting.
- Damir Sagolj/Reuters
Japan is looking to set a meeting between Abe and Trump on April 18, according to Japanese media. Abe is reportedly looking to reaffirm US-Japan cooperation on North Korea before Trump’s meeting with Kim, which is expected in May. Abe is also likely to ask for Japan to be excused from US steel and aluminum tariffs.
The confusion over the North Korea meeting isn’t the first time Trump has appeared to undercut his Japanese partner, Bremmer said.
“This is the same thing with TPP. Abe had put a lot of personal political capital at stake in beating on the agricultural lobby, and not just the farmers … but the [agricultural] banks, pension schemes, all the rest, to get support for a US-led TPP deal, and then Trump pulls out,” Bremmer said, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping trade deal, spearheaded by Barack Obama, that Trump exited days after taking office in January 2017.
“And if you’re the United States, you say, ‘Hey, the deal wasn’t good for us. We’ll do a bilateral deal with Japan,'” Bremmer added. “If you’re the Japanese, [you say], “We don’t want to negotiate a bilateral deal. We don’t want to do that. We’ll do TPP by ourselves with all these other countries.'”
On March 8, 11 countries representing 500 million on both sides of the Pacific Ocean – including US allies Japan, Australia, Canada, and Mexico – signed the TPP deal.