The four day trip beginning May 25, 2019 to Japan by the US President Donald Trump covered a range of areas concerning the two countries and was strongly driven by leader-to-leader interaction. The Abe-Trump dynamics have caught the attention of many political commentators since the time Trump took office, and the Japanese Prime Minister was the first head of state to meet the former in the US in 2016. PM Abe has been famous for being one of the few international leaders to engage with his American counterpart consistently, irrespective of the occasional criticism flowing from the White House over Tokyo’s policies. In his second visit to Japan, the US President enjoyed an expansive itinerary, which aimed at softening the growing bilateral crevices. The trip led to some key takeaways.
Reinforcing Security Alliance
US-Japan relations have been the bedrock for America’s Indo Pacific strategy for ages, and this trip was intended to showcase the strength of this longstanding alliance. Trump became the first US President to board a Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) Vessel JS Kaga, a Japanese warship. JS Kaga and its sister ship Izumo are the biggest warships the Japanese MSDF built since the end of Second World War.
In a bold move by the Abe government in December 2018, Japan decided to remodel Kaga and Izumo to give them features of an aircraft carrier so that they can launch US made stealth fighter jets. This decision was taken under the National Defense guidelines and Medium Term Defense Program amidst growing Chinese assertiveness in the region. Basking in the historic moment on Kaga, US President announced that Japan has decided to buy 105 Lockheed Martin made F-35 US stealth war planes. The probable estimate of the purchase is around one trillion yen (9.1 billion dollars). With this purchase, Japan would have the “largest F-35 fleet of any US ally”.
Friction over North Korea
The hot button issue of North Korea was one of the expected topics to be discussed by the two leaders in this visit. But the American and Japanese diversion on this matter was clearly visible while engaging with the press in a media conference. Trump’s relaxed and positive observation of North Korean actions sat opposite to Japan’s apprehensions and alarmed reactions. On being questioned about the recent short range missile tests by North Korea, the US President responded that he “wasn’t personally bothered”.
The US President’s statement contradicted his National Security Advisor John Bolton’s press briefing few days back where he claimed that the North Korean missile tests “violated UN resolutions”. Bolton’s opinion had pleased the Japanese, but Trump’s views caused concerns. Significantly, Trump’s willingness to give the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un more opportunities to crack a deal on abandoning their nuclear plans, occurred only few minutes after he met the family members of Japanese citizens who were captured by the North Koreans in 1970s and 80s. This critical difference of opinion between Trump and Abe has created substantial domestic hurdles for the Japanese Prime Minister who has personally looked into forging closer ties with the American leader.
American Persistence over Trade Issues
On the matters of trade, U.S-Japan relations have recently witnessed brewing tensions over Trump quitting the TPP and raising tariffs unilaterally. The impending bilateral trade agreement between the two countries was one of the main points of discussion between the two leaders. President Trump met Japanese businessmen at the US ambassador’s residence, where he spoke about trade imbalances, removing barriers for US exports and ensuring fairness and reciprocity in bilateral trade.
After his prolong interaction with Prime Minister Abe, President Trump declared that the trade negotiations would be put on hold till the upcoming Japanese elections in July. American push for a bilateral agreement and the Japanese preference for multilateral trade deals have been one of the major contested issues between the two countries, but Abe finally got onboard with the idea of a bilateral trade deal in 2018.
Behind the scenes, US Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso have been working closely towards sealing a trade deal. President Trump announced that a trade deal with Japan is expected by August, meshing with his six-month deadline of putting off tariffs on imported cars. Trump has been able to use this deadline as a leverage to bring the Japanese to the table for negotiations.
Possible De-escalation of US-Iran Tensions
Before leaving for Japan, President Trump declared that he would order an additional 1500 troops to Middle East for tackling threats emanating from Iran. The strains in US-Iran relations have reached new heights with the American aircraft carrier sailing towards the Persian Gulf and joined by B-52 bombers with the intention to warn Iran. On this matter when the President was questioned by the media, he supported the idea of PM Abe acting as mediator between the US and Iran.
With the Tehran government voicing no interest in having a dialogue with the US government, President Trump emphasized on the possibility of Japan taking a mediating position in his upcoming meeting with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The US President also stressed that America was “not looking for regime change” in Iran, but rather no nuclear weapons.
It was natural for Trump to approach Abe for mediating on this issue, as the EU, China, Russia and India have expressed their reservatons over Trump’s Iran policy.
Raising US Domestic Political Issue in Japan
Moving away from the usual presidential protocol of restraining comments regarding domestic matters on foreign soil, Trump supported a recent tweet by the North Korean regime, claiming former US Vice President “Joe Biden having low IQ”. When confronted over favoring a violent dictator, the US President stayed true to his partisan roots and asserted that “Biden was a disaster”.
A day after the trip got over, reports started emerging over traded emails between White House and lower level staff of the US Navy about keeping ships named after the former US Senator John McCain’s father and grandfather out of the president’s sight during his Japan visit. Trump-McCain feud has been well known, though the President denied any knowledge of this development. Apart from this, the US Navy has given orders for conducting review to examine whether President Trump themed patches worn by the US sailors during his visit of USS WASP in Japan violated navy rules. Prohibiting any exhibition of political messages while in uniform is a critical practice in the defense forces.
- Best of Japanese Hospitality
President Trump became the first foreign leader to meet the newly crowned Emperor Naruhito, whose enthronement commenced the new Japanese era called Reiwa, meaning beautiful harmony. The Abe-Trump camaraderie was at full display, with the Japanese leader hosting his counterpart for a golf match, sumo tournament and a barbeque dinner.
Donald Trump presented the winner of the sumo championship with the first President’s Cup, an oversized silver trophy reportedly bought by the president himself. With an aim to foster closer personal ties, the two leaders and their respective first ladies enjoyed multiple events together. But Abe’s charm offensive yielding tangible benefits for the country is yet to be seen. Trump’s opinions on trade, North Korea and defense burden sharing have kept Tokyo apprehensive. In a bid to please the mercurial US President with such lavish state supervised events, PM Abe has put all bets on “entertainment diplomacy”.
*** The author is currently a PhD Student at Center for Canadian, United States and Latin American Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. ***