Trump and Abe exchange fist bumps on the fairway, but ‘America first’ policy makes Asia-Pacific relations murky
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe does not hesitate to please US President Donald Trump.
A year ago he headed to Trump Tower in New York with a gold-plated golf driver as a gift for the then US president-elect. In February, he was the first foreign leader to fly to Washington to congratulate Trump in person on his inauguration. He even had the chance to tee off with Trump on one of the US president’s golf courses in Florida.
Trump has spoken about their good chemistry. During each meeting, Trump called the Japanese prime minister by his first name to display the close personal relationship between them. Japanese officials and media like to call it the “honeymoon”.
On Nov 3, Abe offered to contribute US$50 million from the Japanese government to a fund initiated by Ivanka Trump to support female entrepreneurs in developing countries. The US president’s daughter and closest adviser was in Tokyo ahead of her father’s first official visit to Asia.
Donald Trump has returned the favor to Abe, kicking off his visit to the region in Japan on Nov 5. Abe also treated Trump to a round of golf on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Abe has repeatedly made known his full backing of Trump’s policy of putting all options, including military ones, on the table in dealing with the nuclear and ballistic missile development by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Abe is interested in maximizing pressure on Pyongyang. On Nov 7, the prime minister announced additional sanctions that Japan will impose to freeze the assets of nine organizations and 26 individuals from the DPRK.
But there was no more “fire” and “fury” in Trump’s rhetoric on the DPRK when he was in Seoul on Nov 7. He said it makes sense for the DPRK to come to the negotiation table and make a deal.
He called on the international community — including China and Russia — to cooperate and put pressure on the DPRK to back away from the nuclear brink.
If Trump decides to talk to the DPRK, Abe is expected to make a U-turn.
Throughout Trump’s stay in Japan, the two played up their bromance, praising each other lavishly, exchanging fist bumps on the fairway and letting the world know that the US and Japan have never been closer. They said their countries have “unshakable” bonds of alliance.
Despite the closeness, Trump made no bones about Japan’s “massive” surplus — nearly US$70 billion last year. He said he is committed to achieving a “fair, free and reciprocal” trading relationship with Japan.
Trump has pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which, as he said in Tokyo, is not a right idea.
Japan, however, is working hard to make the agreement operational for the 11 remaining member nations. Abe, smiling uncomfortably beside Trump, publicly deflected questions about trade.
Trump is a tough salesman in Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK). He was selling US military hardware to the two allies. Trump wants to use US military equipment to create jobs in the US and ensure security in the two countries.
Putting “America first”, Trump policy on Asia is murky. The Trump administration has not appointed a permanent assistant secretary of state for Asia Pacific. Nor has it named a nominee for ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Analysts see these vacancies as evidence of the administration’s diminished interest in, or capacity for, the region.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Nov 5 showed that Trump has a 37 percent approval rating, worse than any other president’s over the past several decades. He has faced a number of controversies, including the recent indictments that came as a result of the investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 election.
With weak domestic support, Trump has sent mixed messages on his Japan and ROK tours.
“Together with our allies, America’s warriors are prepared to defend our nation using the full range of our unmatched capabilities. No one — no dictator, no regime and no nation — should underestimate, ever, American resolve,” Trump told American and Japanese troops at the US Yokota Air Base, on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Three of the US Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers — the USS Ronald Reagan, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Nimitz, which each head a carrier strike group that includes Aegis destroyers — are set to hold a joint exercise in the Western Pacific. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are expected to join the large-scale event, the first involving three US flattops since a similar drill was held in the waters off Guam in 2007.
It is rare, as US military officials acknowledged, to have three of the US’ 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in one region of the world at the same time. The drill is a show of commitment to US allies, they said, dismissing speculation that it signaled an impending military confrontation.
When Trump arrived at the golf club on Nov 5, Abe presented him with a hat that had a version of Trump’s campaign theme but read: Donald & Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater.
Japan wants to play a leading role in Asia, dancing to the tune of the Trump administration.
Japanese officials have found fault with the ROK’s hosting of Trump’s visit to Seoul. Japan has protested over the arrangements of the banquet that ROK President Moon Jae-in threw for Trump on Nov 7.
Moon invited a former wartime “comfort woman” — a euphemism for females mostly from Asian countries forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.
The 88-year-old Korean woman should not have been invited because the two countries, as Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, reached an agreement in 2015 aimed at “finally and irreversibly” settling the issue.
Also, Japan is unhappy about the ROK serving shrimp that came from waters around a pair of islets at the center of the dispute between the two countries.
At a time when stronger coordination between Japan, the US and the ROK is required to deal with the DPRK issue, and with Trump choosing Japan and the ROK as the first stops on his trip, Suga said there is a need to avoid making moves that could negatively affect ties between the three countries.
The ROK has put the frictions between the US’ two allies in front of Trump.
The author is China Daily’s bureau chief in Tokyo.