Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will return to Florida tomorrow to meet with President Donald J. Trump. Much has changed since Abe’s first visit in February 2017, just a month into the new Trump administration. The Abe-Trump relationship has blossomed over the president’s first year in office, largely at the prompting of a growing showdown with North Korea. The sensitive task of how to manage Trump’s desire to renegotiate the terms of U.S.-Japan economic ties remains incomplete, however.
Both leaders have been hobbled by political scandals at home and will want to avoid a summit that highlights their difficulties. Many in Japan believe that the personal relationship that has anchored the U.S.-Japan alliance throughout the tumultuous transition into the Trump administration has frayed, and Japan’s media will be paying careful attention to how Trump treats Abe and whether the relationship is resilient enough to negotiate some of the harder issues where the interests of Tokyo and Washington may not align.
To be successful, this summit needs to accomplish three things. First and foremost, Abe and Trump will need to talk about Kim Jong-un. Japan’s prime minister will want the United States and Japan to be on the same page on North Korea, and he will want assurances that President Trump will represent Japan’s interests when he meets with Kim. The surprise announcement that Trump will meet with the North Korean leader was a bit of a body blow to the Abe cabinet. Tokyo had worked throughout 2017 to ensure the U.S.-Japan alliance was militarily prepared to respond to a missile attack, at times synchronizing exercises with those of the U.S. and South Korean militaries. Pyongyang’s relentless stream of missile launches in 2017 were all aimed in Japan’s direction, and they revealed Tokyo’s vulnerability to a missile attack. Deterrence and defense were bolstered as the alliance sought to respond.
Now that Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have agreed to meet, however, Tokyo must also consider its stake in any potential negotiations over the future of the Korean Peninsula. This is a more difficult task for Japan’s prime minister. While the United States focuses on denuclearization, Japan must also consider the missile threat emanating from North Korea. Today, Kim’s missile arsenal may be the greatest immediate threat to Japan and one that Tokyo is unprepared for should conflict break out. Ballistic missile defenses will need improving, and even then, it would be hard to claim that Japan is fully protected from North Korea’s missiles.
As important to the Japanese public will be President Trump’s willingness to work on behalf of those Japanese abducted by the Kim regime. Abe has been one of the most outspoken advocates on the issue of Japanese abductees, critical of the inability of past governments to get Pyongyang to account for the missing. Already, President Trump met with the families of the abducted during his November visit to Japan. Earlier this month, after the Trump-Kim meeting was announced, U.S. Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty met with the families to promise that President Trump will raise the issue of the missing Japanese in his discussions with Kim Jong-un.
Second, we should expect a statement on how Tokyo and Washington see the future of the economic relationship. This is perhaps the most difficult topic of the meeting. Washington and Tokyo have yet to find a way forward on their trade relationship, as President Trump and his advisors continue to focus in on the bilateral trade deficit. While in Tokyo last fall, Trump seemed to chastise Abe for his economic accomplishments and noted that Japan would be buying more American weapons to help fix the deficit and provide more jobs for American workers. In February, Vice President Mike Pence visited Tokyo on his way to the Pyeongchang Olympic Games, but he did not hold consultations with Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, his counterpart in the U.S.-Japan Economic Dialogue. Rumor has it that the Trump administration was growing increasingly frustrated with meetings that had no outcomes. In March, Japan was conspicuously not given an exemption from the United States’ Section 232 sanctions on steel and aluminum, unlike other close partners, such as Canada, Mexico, and South Korea. This struck another blow to the idea of a special Trump-Abe relationship.
Coming into the summit, therefore, Abe will need to find a way to address these economic irritations, yet there is little evidence that Tokyo is interested in a bilateral free trade agreement. Instead, Abe is likely to offer a framework for the United States and Japan that looks a lot like what was negotiated in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Only this year, the TPP has evolved, largely because of Abe’s leadership, to become a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)—otherwise known as the TPP-11—agreed upon without the United States. Intriguing in the run up to this week’s summit was the president’s instruction to Lighthizer and the new director of the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, to review the U.S. interests in the TPP, although Trump continued to tweet about the need for an agreement on trade with Japan.
Finally, both Abe and Trump need a political boost. The Abe cabinet’s approval rating percentages have dipped precariously into the thirties after new discoveries about the government’s handling of two suspicious cases of favorable treatment involving the prime minister and his wife. One scandal has it that a rightist kindergarten was given a discounted rate in a government land deal. The school claims political backing from Abe’s wife, who has denied knowledge of the details of the land sale. In the other, a friend of the prime minister’s was supposedly given preferential treatment to open a veterinary school in Ehime Prefecture. Neither of these cases has produced evidence of direct involvement by Abe, but both have exposed corrupt practices by bureaucrats trying to court favor with the prime minister’s staff. The Ministry of Finance doctored documents once the scandal broke in the land sale to the kindergarten, and the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology was responsible for the alleged favoritism displayed in the veterinary school case. The prime minister has repeatedly stated that he will take full responsibility should it be proven that his office was involved.
President Trump, on the other hand, has his own ongoing political tempest, and his own approval ratings at about 40 percent are only marginally better than Abe’s. Coinciding with the release of former FBI Director James Comey’s new book and the President’s Twitter response to it, the summit will likely be overshadowed by Trump’s distractions at home. There are also other foreign policy priorities for Washington. The air strike in Syria has set off a round of questioning of the Trump administration’s strategy in Syria, particularly its increasingly confrontational approach to Russia. Simmering in the background, of course, is the administration’s rising threat of a trade war with China. Abe will want to talk about these foreign policy challenges and will have thoughts of his own on how Japan sees both the Syrian civil war and the possibility of a trade war with Beijing. Worsening U.S. relations with Moscow also limit Abe’s ability to negotiate a peace treaty with Russian leader Vladimir Putin—a project that has stalled as Russia’s relations with Europe and the United States have worsened.
Once again, the golf course beckons. Abe will want a success story at Mar-A-Lago to bolster his approval rating back home and to ensure that the alliance with the United States is still Japan’s best bet for security. He will urge caution with Kim Jong-un and a broad-minded approach to regional trade. President Trump too might like a bit of positive news. He will need to listen carefully to Abe’s worries about the summit with Kim, and he will need to find a good approach to claiming victory on trade with Japan. Both will want to spend time away from cameras, trying to resolve their differences and putting a strong statesman-like face on as they struggle through this increasingly fraught era.