US President Donald Trump’s official visit to Japan on May 25-28 drew more attention than a typical meeting of leaders from two major Western nations, considering the current international and political context and the fact that the visit took place in the run-up to the upcoming G20 Summit in Osaka, which cast the meeting as an important phase in preparations for this event.
In order to make the G20 Summit a success, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe traveled in April to France, Italy, Canada and the United States. The Japanese leader mainly sought to make sure that he was on the same page with Japan’s key partners and prevent the emergence of any unwanted disputes that could ruin the atmosphere at the upcoming forum.
The recent meeting between the Japanese and US leaders was part of that same process. Shinzo Abe wanted to show the entire world that Japan’s alliance with the United States is unshakable and that the two countries share approaches to the main global and regional issues, while the differences on trade are minor compared to the escalating US-China trade war. Abe also wanted to show that he has cultivated a close personal relationship with Trump, which was especially important for the Japanese leader considering the persistent distrust in Japan toward the US president who has criticized Japan on a number of occasions for refusing to pay a fair price for US security guarantees.
In this connection it should be noted that Abe is known as a skilled practitioner of personal diplomacy and seeks to build solid working and informal relationships with leaders of partner countries. The United States is no exception. This style of diplomacy is especially important in Trump’s case, since Tokyo has every reason to view the US president as decidedly erratic, which is considered a terrible flaw in Japan, as well as not entirely competent when it comes to international affairs. For this reason, Abe pays special attention to his personal interactions with Trump, including in confidential and informal settings. It is not a coincidence that the political dialogue between the two countries is widely characterized as golf diplomacy. The Japanese prime minister even ingratiated himself by nominating Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The latest visit was no exception, with the Japanese working to emphasize how close bilateral relations between the two countries are. The two leaders once again spent several hours golfing, and the US president was invited to a sumo match where he was treated to special VIP seating near the ring, which runs counter to the strict traditions of the sport. The informal bonding continued at a barbeque restaurant.
For the hosts, Trump’s latest visit to Japan was also symbolic because the US president became the first official guest to visit the country in the Reiwa era that began on May 1 with the ascendance to the throne of Emperor Naruhito. Trump was also the first foreign leader to be granted an audience by the new emperor. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called it a sign of “the two countries' unwavering alliance.” Among other things, Abe wanted to make sure that Trump visits Japan before Xi Jinping, who is expected to take part in the G20 Summit, in order to show that Japan believes the United States to be a greater priority in its foreign relations than China. Speaking at a reception in the Imperial Palace after an audience with the Japanese monarch, Trump returned the favor by saying that he and his spouse were “deeply honored” to become Japan’s first state guests in the Reiwa era.
In yet another gesture, Trump and Abe visited US Navy base in Yokosuka, where they went aboard the Kaga, one of the two Izumo-class helicopter carriers of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. This was also a symbolic event, since it was the first time a sitting US president set foot on a Japanese military vessel in the entire history of bilateral relations. Trump noted that Yokosuka was the only naval base in the world that was home to both the US fleet as well the military ships of the host country.
Interestingly, Japan intends to repurpose these helicopter carriers as aircraft carriers in order to deploy fighter jets that will be purchased from the United States. The deal to buy 105 F35s and 42 F-35Bs for the Izumo-class carriers was announced in December 2018. It is worth mentioning that Japan has sent these warships to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean on numerous occasions as part of joint exercises with the US and other countries.
According to the latest version of the Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation released in 2015, Japan has primary responsibility to respond to any military attack on its territory, while the United States is expected to “provide appropriate support.” In other words, the United States will not use its military power to protect Japan unless its own forces are mobilized. In this context, the visit onboard the carrier Kaga was clearly intended to demonstrate the growing might of the Japanese Navy that is now able to perform combat operations on its own, reinforcing the equality of the two allies. In addition, the Japanese hosts expected the fact that US fighter jets will be purchased for the occasion and used on this carrier to add more weight to Tokyo’s intentions to reduce its trade surplus with the US in order to somewhat ease tension in this regard.
As for the gist of the talks between the two leaders, they were dominated by a number of key topics, with the North Korean nuclear program overshadowing all the rest. As usual, Tokyo’s position on the DPRK is stricter compared to the United States. Japan vigorously protested the May 9 short-range ballistic missile launches by Pyongyang. Abe reaffirmed this position on May 27 during a working lunch at the Akasaka Palace, when be expressed “deep regret” over the violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Trump said that Kim Jong-un was simply seeking attention, and for this reason refused to consider it a breach of trust. At the same time, seeking to underscore the shared positions of the allies, Abe said that the United States and Japan saw eye to eye on North Korea policy.
It should be noted that the US president wants the DPRK and Japan to engage in direct dialogue. During the February summit with the North Korean leader in Hanoi, Trump suggested that his counterpart meet personally with Abe, telling Kim Jong-un that Japan was ready to provide financial assistance to Pyongyang once the problem of abducted Japanese nationals was resolved. Kim Jong-un responded by saying that he was ready to meet with the Japanese prime minister sooner or later. On May 6, Abe went ahead and offered to arrange a meeting with Kim without preconditions. The topic of the abductees was clearly high on the agenda of Trump’s recent visit to Japan, since the US president met with the families of abducted Japanese nationals and said that he would “spare no effort” to help achieve their repatriation.
Iran was another topic on the agenda. This is where the basic positions of the two leaders differ. Trump decided to take the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran last year, while Japan continues to support the deal. On this matter Tokyo is playing the role of peacemaker. Abe said that Japan was eager to work with Washington to ease tension around Iran, while Trump expressed interest in Tokyo serving as a mediator, saying that the Japanese prime minister was very close with Iran’s leadership. The US is probably aware of the fact that the Iranian leadership has also pinned its hopes on Japan’s mediation effort given the absence of any bias in the relations between Tehran and Tokyo. It is not a coincidence that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Tokyo one week ahead of Trump.
With the Asian vision as one of the guiding principles of its foreign policy, Japan has always attached a lot of importance to mediation and peacemaking efforts in Asia. For this reason, Japan is clearly interested in the United States and Iran settling their differences as soon as possible. Japan can also be viewed as having a moral right to lead efforts to ban nuclear weapons, which further enhances its potential to bring about a resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue.
Bilateral trade was also high on the agenda. Trade relations have soured under Trump. Moreover, Japan has been reporting a steady increase in its trade surplus with the United States in recent months, up 18 percent to $6.6 billion in April alone. Against this backdrop and with his 2020 re-election campaign in mind, Trump faced the key task of forcing Japan to open up its agricultural market and agreeing to a substantial increase in import duties on Japanese cars. In April, Japan and the United States launched negotiations on a bilateral trade agreement, and many in Tokyo feared that the US president would use his visit to pressure Japan to accept his position.
However, Trump’s visit did not set the ground for a new outbreak in the trade war. It was clear that Trump did not want to create any major political problems for the Japanese leader by forcing him to make concessions on trade ahead of the elections to the House of Councilors this July, since the vote of farmers who form the traditional base of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party matters a lot for the prime minister. Last year’s understanding to act in the spirit of agreement as long as the talks were ongoing also played its role.
Still, it was simply impossible to sweep all the differences under the carpet. Japan made it clear that the United States will not get any preferences compared to the new Trans-Pacific Partnership that is already in force and which the US left when Trump became president. Japanese Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi reaffirmed Japan’s position that it would not give the United States greater access on agriculture beyond TPP levels. At the press conference following the summit, Trump insisted that he would not be bound by terms outlined in previous agreements such as the TPP. Accordingly, there is every reason to suggest that trade talks will move into an active phase in the second half of the year when tension is expected to escalate.
Interestingly, the summit did not result in a joint statement. The Japanese press argued that the parties already issued a statement in February 2017 in Washington and did not need to draft a new one. Instead, the two leaders held a joint press conference and engaged in a number of informal activities as part of the visit to show their friendship and mutual trust.
However, the two sides could not fully downplay their differences, which was clearly visible from the statements on North Korea and trade. The visit did nothing to dispel Japan’s wariness toward an unpredictable Trump who tends to place US interests above those of its allies. If history is any guide, Japanese leaders usually find it easier to deal with Republicans than Democrats in the White House. Still, bilateral tension is expected to continue to rise due to the persistence of fundamental differences on the way the two countries understand their national interests.