The Cable

Tough Balancing Act for Japan’s Abe in Second Meeting With Trump

He was the first foreign leader to meet with Trump after his election. But now he knows the president meant what he said on the campaign trail.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump after his election. On Friday, Feb. 10, he will meet with President Trump, before spending the weekend at Mar-a-Lago in Florida.

In that first meeting, experts believed Abe’s task was simply to assure Trump that the two are on the same side, after plenty of inflammatory campaign rhetoric from the real estate mogul. In this second meeting, he has much more work cut out for him, not only in maintaining U.S.-Japanese trade, but also in ensuring Japan still has a hearty welcome under the U.S. security umbrella.

“This meeting will be different,” Celine Pajon, a research fellow at IFRI’s Center for Asian Studies, told Foreign Policy, “because Trump’s first decisions as president showed that he is actually serious and determined to apply the program he announced during his campaign.”

When they first met, Trump had already said he would pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but he hadn’t yet done it. Now he has. And though Trump had spent 30 years criticizing Japan for taking advantage of the United States, he hadn’t made the claim as president that Japan is engaging in “global freeloading” by intentionally devaluing its currency. Now he’s done that, too.

Since he couldn’t convince the U.S. president to remain in TPP, Abe is expected to use the Feb. 10 meeting to express the importance of bilateral trade, and to perhaps lay the groundwork for trade talks. For Japan, the United States is its second biggest trade partner, and an especially important market for autos and electronics.

“There is a widespread view,” Pajon said, “that Japan should move quickly to try to shape Trump’s views on the value of the bilateral relationship, even if Trump’s first moves were not necessarily in favor of Japan’s interests.”

Abe is also expected to try and mollify Trump with more tangible offers than a future trade deal. Japanese officials have said Abe will put forth a five-pronged plan, the “U.S.-Japan Growth and Employment Initiative,” that would ostensibly create up to 700,000 jobs through greater Japanese investment in the United States, though it does not detail specific investments or programs.

In some ways, this strategy resembles Abe’s approach with Russian President Vladimir Putin. When Putin came to Japan in December, Abe announced 80 business deals between the two governments, including about 300 billion yen in investments, loans, and credit deals in Russia. The carrots were meant to tempt Moscow to return the disputed Kuril islands to Japan, and also to coax Russia on to Tokyo’s side as a regional check against China.

But for Japan, better relations with Russia are a luxury; a healthy alliance with the United States is a must-have.

“Getting along with Trump is a matter of life or death for Japan,” Pajon said. Tokyo does not have an alternative to its alliance with the United States to deter the threat of nuclear North Korea and an increasingly aggressive China. And Trump believes Japan, which has a pacifist constitution, does not invest enough in defense. (Though Abe is doing his best to change that.)

Abe can make a good pitch. Japan is America’s most stable East Asian ally, and at least some in Trump’s administration understand that. Secretary of Defense James Mattis took his first foreign trip to South Korea and Japan, and pointedly did not rock the boat by demanding, for example, that America’s Asian allies pony up more.

But the Trump administration could still cause headaches for Japan by ratcheting up tensions with China. The Trump administration, especially Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have signalled a much tougher line on pushing back against Chinese activity in the South China Sea. Some in Chinese military circles are already banging the war drums. Many in Tokyo fear that a more belligerent Washington could drag Japan into conflict.

And Japan has its own vulnerable flank, ultimately defended by America’s word, making good relations between Tokyo and Washington all the more crucial, regardless of the Trump administration’s confrontational talk. Just after Mattis left Japan, reaffirming America’s commitment to the country’s defense, three Chinese coast guard ships sailed in the East China Sea near the disputed Senkaku (or, as they’re known in China, Diaoyu) islands, claimed by both countries.

Under President Barack Obama, the United States reiterated its commitment to defending those uninhabited rocks in the case of conflict. Abe might be hoping to gain assurances that pledge still holds.

Photo credit: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

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