The Cable

Abe, Fresh Off Election Victory, Now Gets to Host Trump

A resounding win at the polls doesn’t mean a green light for the Japanese PM.

Shinzo Abe speaks at his party's headquarters in Oct. 2017 (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
Shinzo Abe speaks at his party's headquarters in Oct. 2017 (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s snap election gamble paid off, giving his Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament and a political fillip ahead of his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Tokyo next month.

The trouncing of what turned out to be a disjointed opposition — compared to 2014, when the opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, was in a sorry state but at least held together in both houses of parliament — puts a summer of scandals behind Abe and promised to raise his stature with Trump, Carnegie’s James Schoff said at an event on Monday organized by Sasakawa USA. Indeed, unlike German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Abe got a congratulatory phone call within hours (not days) of his electoral win.

But there are still a couple of big points of potential tension on the horizon between Japan and the United States: the North Korea mess and trade. In recent days, the Trump administration has signaled that it is seriously considering a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea. Abe after his big win focused on North Korea — but seemed to put a lot more emphasis on a diplomatic solution to the impasse.

“My immediate task is to deal with North Korea,” he told reporters. “It will take tough diplomacy. With the mandate given by the people, I would like to exercise my command in diplomacy.”

And while Abe’s parliamentary majority seems big enough to push through a more militaristic national security policy, in reality it might be a poisoned chalice. While the opposition is smaller than it was, it is more radicalized. And its rallying cry is Japanese constitutional pacifism. That promises to make it harder for Abe to summon political support for an interventionist security policy.

But at any rate, North Korea wasn’t the focus of the Japanese election — the economy was, said Takako Hikotani of Columbia University, speaking at the same event. But the two leaders hardly see eye to eye on that, either.

Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a planned 12-nation trade pact spanning North and South America and the Pacific Rim, early in his term. That dismayed Japan, which had finally offered painful trade concessions with the hope of getting access to a massive pool of global consumers. Tokyo still holds out hope that the Trump administration will reverse its TPP stance.

And while the Trump team wants a simpler bilateral trade deal with Japan, that’s unlikely to happen. First, clawing out concessions on issues like auto manufacturing and agriculture were hard enough when U.S. negotiators could dangle lots of potential carrots; a bilateral deal holds less appeal than the massive TPP.

Second, Tokyo is not keen on becoming the first country to let Trump prove his vaunted dealmaking skills by signing off on a bilateral trade agreement that could be disadvantageous to Japanese firms and workers.

Abe, Hikotani said, “knows very well [the election result] is not a full endorsement” of his agenda, or a green light to pursue whatever military and economic policies might please Trump.

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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