Japan still junior partner in US alliance

By Chen Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/7 19:13:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with US President Donald Trump on Monday. They affirmed they would apply more pressure on North Korea until it ends its nuclear and ballistic missile development programs. And the two leaders established a consensus on strengthening their cooperation toward "a free and open Indo-Pacific." Meanwhile, they reaffirmed the alliance between the US and Japan. Japan was Trump's first stop during his five-nation visit to Asia.

During the US presidential election of 2016, Trump criticized Japan many times over the trade deficit, making lots of Japanese worry about the future relationship between the two countries. However, after the election, Abe, who had chosen the wrong side, became one of the foreign leaders closest to Trump. From January till now, they have made 17 phone calls, held five summits and played golf twice. It is not only hard for other foreign leaders to surpass such frequent communication, but it has also led them to become closer to each other personally.

In his visit to Asia, Trump therefore chose to stay in Japan as long as he has decided to stay in China - for three days and two nights. After all, Japan is not a big political power traditionally and the impact of China in Asia is much bigger than that of Japan. But from the length of Trump's stay, his administration has raised Japan up to the same diplomatic status as China and higher than South Korea, which is also a US ally.

Trump's attitude to Japan went through enormous changes before and after he became president. Abe's tactics to approach Trump can be summarized in four points. First, he never criticized Trump's policies. In January, Trump's immigration plan was not only opposed by Americans but also criticized by some European leaders. In the US alliance, only Abe refrained from saying anything, which may have brought him Trump's favor.

Second, Abe increased communications with Trump using the Korean Peninsula issue. Of the 17 phone calls between Trump and Abe, 11 were related to North Korea and six happened just after North Korea launched missiles or took nuclear test.

As Abe stressed many times that he supported Trump's sanctions policies, it made Trump more willing to listen to Abe's suggestions on the Korean Peninsula issue instead of getting advice from South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had proposed negotiations to solve the problems.

At last, purchasing expensive American-made weapons catered for Trump's demands.

After Abe retook office in 2012, Japan's defense budget has been rising, a big part of which is allocated for weapons update. Although Japan has already installed the US Aegis ship-based anti-ballistic missile system and PAC-3 anti-missile system to deal with missile threat from North Korea, Abe said Japan would continue purchasing US weapons when he met with Trump. This caters to Trump's "America First" policy and brings handsome profits to US companies.

Abe has spared no effort to cozy up to the Trump family. Ivanka Trump visited Tokyo before her father to attend the World Assembly for Women. During her stay, Abe pledged to contribute $50 million to the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative championed by the US first daughter, which added Brownie points for her performance in the trip and helped enhance Abe's relationship with the US president.

By these methods, Abe seems to have built a close personal relationship with Trump. But the diplomatic tactics can't change the unequal footing of Japan-US relations.

Trump keeps close ties with Abe primarily to divert domestic pressure. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, Trump's approval rating was 37 percent, the lowest among US presidents at this point in office in the past 70 years. He also faces formidable obstacles in tax reform, healthcare and in his other policy initiatives. To distract public attention away from domestic issues and make diplomatic achievements, Trump finds the loyal Japanese prime minister the best candidate.

Meanwhile, the trade deficit between the two countries, which Trump highly cares about, hasn't been overturned despite the ties between the two leaders. When speaking in Tokyo on Monday, Trump reaffirmed that the US would stay away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and called US trade with Japan "not fair" and "not open," showing his stern stance on the trade issue. It is possible that the trade deficit issue will continue shaking up the Japan-US relationship.

Although Abe has managed to make Japan Trump's first stop in his maiden Asia trip, no substantial achievement has been made to issues that matter for both countries, and Japan remains on the back foot in its ties with the US.

The author is a PhD candidate with the Tokyo-based Toyo University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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