Tokyo Report

Trump and Abe: The Odd Couple

There’s a clear strategic rationale for Abe’s over-the-top efforts to cultivate a relationship with Trump.

By Weston S. Konishi for
Trump and Abe: The Odd Couple

Abe rushed to be the first foreign leader to meet with President-elect Donald Trump in November 2016.

Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

At the invitation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, U.S. President Donald J. Trump will travel to Tokyo later this week as the first foreign leader to meet Japan’s newly-crowned Emperor Naruhito. This unique honor caps off Abe’s campaign to develop a close personal rapport with his famously mercurial counterpart—including nominating Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize and presenting a set of gold-plated golf clubs to the bling-happy leader of the free world.

Such largesse is not without its reasons. Japan relies on its alliance with the United States for its national security and, although China has become its largest overall trade partner, the United States is Japan’s largest export market. This is a bilateral relationship that Japan cannot afford to lose.

Yet the Trump administration presents unique challenges for Tokyo. Not only did the administration impose steel and aluminum tariffs on Japan soon after coming to office but it forced Tokyo into bilateral trade talks to avoid even more damaging tariffs on autos and other goods.

A more alarming concern is Trump’s uncertain appreciation for the strategic importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance. His statements on NATO and other alliance partners suggest a purely transactional worldview, largely oblivious to the delicate nature of alliance diplomacy. An ugly trade war or a rift between the two leaders could jeopardize an alliance that Japan depends on to deter serious threats like China and North Korea. Suddenly those golden golf clubs make a whole lot of sense.

It is anyone’s guess how genuine the Abe-Trump relationship really is. The political blueblood—the son of a former Japanese foreign minister and grandson of a former prime minister—and the casino man from Queens make a very odd couple. Trump appears to have few loyalties outside his immediate family and Abe’s charm offensive, reasonable people can assume, seems more calculated than authentic.

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Yet those reasonable people may be wrong—the affinity between Abe and Trump may run deeper than skeptics wish to believe. Japanese who are in the know assure me with a straight face that Abe’s rapport with Trump is real, and there are not too many other world leaders who Trump calls for advice on a regular basis. There are even signs that Abe’s overtures have paid off, as seen by the Trump administration’s adoption of the “free and open Indo-Pacific”—a strategic vision first outlined by the Japanese prime minister.

Ironically, Abe may find the current disruptor-in-chief in the White House a more kindred spirit than his cool-headed predecessor, Barack Obama. Indeed, despite all the Sturm und Drang surrounding the Trump administration, the Japanese foreign policy establishment does not pine longingly for the days of the “no drama Obama” administration. On the contrary, the open secret that Japanese foreign policy elites—who tend to be politically right of center—prefer Republican over Democratic presidents has never been more glaringly obvious than now.

What accounts for this bias? The original sin was Democratic President Bill Clinton’s infamous “Japan passing” episode in 1998, when he spent nine days in China without stopping by Tokyo. For Japanese conservatives, that episode reinforced a belief that left-leaning American presidents would sell out Japan at a moment’s notice. The slight so indelibly lodged in the collective minds of Japanese elites that no successive Democratic president has been able to live it down.

This is despite the fact that Japan has arguably fared better with Democratic presidents than Republican ones. It was President Richard Nixon, after all, who delivered the “Nixon shocks” of the early 1970s, taking the dollar off of the gold standard and opening diplomatic relations with China—all without consulting Tokyo. When President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list in 2008, many in Tokyo saw the move as a “betrayal” of the president’s promise to punish the regime for its abduction of Japanese citizens.

By contrast, the Obama administration seemed to go out of its way at times to persuade Tokyo of its commitment to the bilateral relationship. Perhaps to atone for her husband’s diplomatic faux pas, Hillary Clinton made Japan her first official trip abroad as secretary of state—a gesture that left no lasting impact on Japanese attitudes toward the administration. Neither did her repeated statements confirming America’s commitment to Japan in its territorial disputes with China.

In fact, statements like these did virtually nothing to convince Japanese policy elite that the Obama administration would not abandon Japan at the first sign of Chinese encroachment. Instead, as one influential Japanese expert has noted, Obama’s failure to follow through on his “red line” in Syria, as well as his reluctance to intervene against Russia in Crimea and Ukraine, only reinforced perceptions in Tokyo that Obama lacked spine.

Perhaps the most striking contrast in Japan-related policy between U.S. administrations is on the trade front. The Obama administration completed negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a comprehensive regional trade agreement that Abe was banking on to leverage his economic reform agenda. Of course, one of the first acts of the Trump administration was pulling the plug on the TPP, thus undermining the very agenda that Abe had spent major political capital trying to sell to voters.

Real or fake, the Trump-Abe friendship has so far been remarkably resilient despite its costs to the prime minister. The true test of this relationship will be the upcoming bilateral trade talks. The recent meltdown in U.S.-China trade negotiations shows that Trump may be unwilling to settle for something symbolic and will risk a deepening trade war if he does not get the concessions he wants.

If U.S.-Japan trade talks turn contentious and Trump imposes Section 232 tariffs on Japanese autos, he will be threatening the very lifeblood of the Japanese economy. And if the transactional president uses the bilateral alliance as a bargaining chip for negotiations by, say, casting doubt on its future unless Tokyo bends, Japanese security interests could be severely compromised. Such a dark scenario may seem improbable; the fact that it is not unthinkable speaks to the inherent risks of this presidency.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

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Weston S. Konishi is a senior fellow at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington, DC.