Wednesday, April 25News That Matters

A grumpy Trump welcomes Japan's weakened leader


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On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will call on President Trump at his Florida resort for two days of meetings and meals. It may serve as a welcome reprieve for the duo: Abe and Trump are both weathering scandals at home, with investigators and journalists poring over evidence of both leaders’ alleged cronyism.

Their latest summit at Mar-a-Lago — the pair has already met twice during Trump’s time in office — may offer a brief window to change the conversation. But it may also crack the lid on a new and turbulent period of U.S.-Japan relations.

As my colleagues report, the Trump administration has recently ruffled feathers in Tokyo. First, Abe’s government was alarmed by the White House’s decision to embrace talks with North Korea and kick-start a diplomatic process that could downplay long-standing Japanese concerns. Then it was stung by Trump’s decision not to grant Japan waivers from new U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum, making Japan the only major U.S. ally not to receive such an exemption. (Washington granted Seoul a waiver after revising the terms of their existing bilateral free-trade deal.)

It was a personal blow to Abe, who — unlike the liberal president of South Korea — has endeavored to build a chummy relationship with Trump. “Abe was the first foreign leader to visit Trump after the election, and the two have met and spoken 20 times — more interactions than Trump has had with any other world leader. It is Abe’s second visit to Mar-a-Lago, after meetings and a round of golf last year,” wrote The Post’s David Nakamura and Anna Fifield.

During Trump’s visit to Japan last year, Abe even fell into a bunker as the two leaders golfed. This year, he seems to be mired in a much bigger trap, of his own making. “I think the Japanese thought that Abe kind of knew how to handle Trump. That was his big mistake,” said Clyde Prestowitz, a top trade negotiator in the Reagan administration, to the Los Angeles Times.

On North Korea, the two countries have drifted apart since the last time Trump and Abe met. As the United States presses for North Korea to denuclearize, Tokyo is concerned the White House may risk lifting America’s security umbrella over the Asia-Pacific. In Mar-a-Lago, Abe and his colleagues will seek assurances from Trump that this is not the case.

“Japanese officials are intent on ensuring that Trump pushes to reduce the threat posed by the North’s short- and medium-range missiles, in addition to its nuclear arsenal and intercontinental ballistic missiles,” my colleagues reported. “And Abe also will emphasize human rights, including the unresolved abductions of at least 13 Japanese by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s.”

But U.S. and Japanese interests will be hard to reconcile if Trump proves too eager in his quest to find a historic breakthrough. “If Trump makes rapid progress in his talks with Kim, that could put Abe in a very disadvantageous position. Abe is afraid of that,” said Takao Toshikawa, a veteran political journalist in Tokyo, to Fifield. “So Abe should tell Trump that Japan and the U.S. need to act as one and urge Trump to understand Japan’s position on North Korean issues, as well as economic issues.”

On trade, Abe got a fleeting glimmer of hope last week when it emerged that Trump was weighing a return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the regional free-trade pact long supported by the Japanese. One of Trump’s first acts as president was withdrawing the United States from the agreement, which has since been reconstituted without Washington as a central player.

“If successful, it would undo one of the worst blunders of his administration, which has not exactly been error-free,” wrote Edward Alden for the Nikkei Asian Review. “And it would reassure Japan and other U.S. trading partners in Asia that the strategic interests of the U.S. in the region are strong enough to overcome Trump’s impulses.”

But Trump quickly disappointed onlookers in Tokyo, tweeting that Japan would first have to negotiate a new bilateral trade deal with the United States. So far, the Japanese have shown little appetite for such talks.

Would only join TPP if the deal were substantially better than the deal offered to Pres. Obama. We already have BILATERAL deals with six of the eleven nations in TPP, and are working to make a deal with the biggest of those nations, Japan, who has hit us hard on trade for years!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 13, 2018

It is yet another example of Trump’s apparent blindness to the needs of even long-standing geopolitical partners. “The risk of a transactional ‘America First’ foreign policy is that it plants doubts on allies as to whether joint interests will guide American strategy and actions,” wrote Mireya Solis of the Brookings Institution. “Alliances represent a marriage of fundamental interests. Prime Minister Abe needs this reassurance, but will Trump provide it?”

Even if Trump does somehow give Abe the public guarantees he may seek, the Japanese prime minister may not be long in his post. Despite comfortably winning a new mandate in parliamentary elections last year, Abe’s grip on power is slipping as he faces a pair of spiraling domestic scandals involving allegations that he helped friends at two educational institutions get special treatment from the government. Over the weekend, tens of thousands of Japanese protesters gathered in front of parliament, calling for the prime minister’s resignation; the approval ratings of Abe and his cabinet are at Trumpian levels.

Junichiro Koizumi, a long-ruling predecessor of Abe, told a Japanese reporter that “the situation is getting dangerous” for the prime minister and wondered whether he may choose to quit as early as this summer. Abe’s every move in Florida will be watched by the traveling Japanese press corps, and Trump may be in a position to hold out a sympathetic hand.

As Sheila Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote: “Both will want to spend time away from cameras, trying to resolve their differences and putting a strong statesman-like face on as they struggle through this increasingly fraught era.” But a misstep or disagreement could make the glare of the spotlight all the more harsh.

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