On Thursday afternoon, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stood alongside U.S. President Donald Trump for a press conference in the Rose Garden, where Trump spoke of both his “strong working relationship” and “great personal friendship” with the Japanese prime minister.
The U.S. president, days away from a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, thanked Abe for his help in making the meeting happen, said the meeting could result in something “great” for Japan, and reassured the prime minister that he would “continue to be in very close communication in the weeks ahead, including [on] the issue of Japanese abductees.” Abe for his part praised Trump’s leadership and pledged to make “every effort” to make the summit a success.
On the surface, this exchange looked like a fairly routine exchange between the two leaders, not dissimilar from their last meeting at Mar-a-Lago in April. Trump’s effusive praise of his relationship with Abe, forged over rounds of golf in Florida and in Japan and dozens of phone calls, and his promise to discuss Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea when he meets with Kim seemed carefully crafted to help Abe, embattled by scandal months before he prepares a bid for a third term as ruling party leader that would enable him to serve another three years as prime minister. Abe is eager to show the Japanese people that his special relationship with the U.S. president makes him irreplaceable as Japan’s leader.
However, listening carefully to the two leaders talk Thursday, the most notable feature of the press conference was what was missing. Whereas Trump devoted nearly a third of his opening statement to the economic relationship – stressing the importance of a “bilateral deal with Japan that is based on the principle of fairness and reciprocity,” highlighting “billions and billions of dollars” in new purchases by Japan, and encouraging new investment in the United States – Abe did not devote a single word to the economic relationship in either his opening statement or in response to questions from the media.
Abe’s silence reveals the extent to which the U.S.-Japan economic relationship has become a liability for the Japanese prime minister. While Trump highlights “wins” in trade talks and applies pressure on Abe to accept negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement, Abe has to explain why, despite his close relationship with Trump, his administration did not grant Japan, the country whose alliance with the United States the president called Thursday an “enduring force of peace and stability in the Pacific region and around the world,” an exemption from steel and aluminum tariffs levied for national security reasons. Or, more recently, why Trump recently threatened to impose a 25 percent tariff on automobile imports, again on national security grounds, a measure that would mainly hit Japan and other U.S. allies. Or why Trump has flirted repeatedly with returning to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a major priority for Japan’s trade policies, only to flip-flop shortly thereafter.
These instances seem to highlight the extent to which Abe is unable to leverage his relationship with Trump to shape U.S. policies toward Japan. Instead, Abe has had to deflect U.S. demands for bilateral free trade agreement talks that Tokyo fears would prove damaging to the relationship and hope that the Trump administration is too preoccupied with other trade issues to focus on Japan.
Trump’s North Korea gambit has likely intensified pressure on Abe to put on a brave face and avoid public confrontation with Trump on trade. With the U.S.-North Korea summit four days away and Abe in Washington to implore the U.S. president to remember Japan’s interests when he meets with Kim on Tuesday, pushing back too forcefully against the administration’s trade policies could spoil the broader show of unity.
Abe’s discomfort may be even greater this weekend when the leaders of the G7 gather in Charlevoix, Quebec for a meeting that is already being referred to as the “G-Six Plus One.” Japan’s economic interests place it firmly in the “G-6”; Tokyo undoubtedly shares European and Canadian concerns about the Trump administration’s protectionist measures.
But as Thursday’s meeting highlighted, Abe’s need for Trump to safeguard Japan’s interests in the U.S.-North Korea summit will make it difficult for Abe to side squarely with the other “G-6” countries against Trump. The prime minister will try to bridge the divide, but given the anger of other G7 leaders at being subject to national security tariffs despite longstanding alliances with the United States, this may be an impossible task.
Trump’s North Korea diplomacy has demonstrated the dangers of Abe’s dependence on his relationship with the U.S. president to boost his standing at home and abroad. But despite concerns that Trump could “abandon” Japan in talks, Japan could still benefit from efforts that reduce the risk of war on the Korean peninsula. There is little silver lining for Japan or Abe from trade friction with the U.S., which therefore poses a particularly acute challenge to Abe’s bid for another three years in power.
As the Trump administration increases pressure on Japan through unilateral tariffs, Abe has to strike an increasingly difficult balance. He has to defend Japan’s economic interests while avoiding an overt break with Trump that threatens cooperation in other areas. He ultimately has to show that his close relationship delivers positive results for Japan, making him irreplaceable as prime minister.
No wonder Abe stayed silent Thursday.
Tobias Harris is a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence.