Japan strives for relevance on North Korean nuclear issue

By Li Ruoyu Source:Global Times Published: 2018/6/6 19:58:40

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's frequent meetings with US President Donald Trump reflect a concern about the maverick leader's mercurial policies. Since Abe went to New York to meet Trump in November 2016, they have met six times in less than two years. They are set to have their seventh meeting on Thursday in Washington ahead of Trump's summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un next week. The frequent encounters, rarely seen between Japanese and American leaders, show how worried Japan is about Trump's unpredictable policies.

Abe had put all his bets on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential elections. But when Trump finally pulled off a surprise win, Abe hurriedly flew to the US to mend fences with the new White House occupant. This visit, also meant to get a feel of Trump's Japan policy, was praised within Japan and Abe was even touted as the foreign leader who knows Trump most.

But as the new US president started to show his erratic style, Abe needs to know Trump anew. The Japanese prime minister will meet Trump in less than two months since they held talks in April.

It's clear that Abe wants to evaluate the US stance on the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.

After meeting Trump in April, Abe told reporters that he had engaging talks with the US president over North Korea and economic topics and reached an agreement on major issues. Trump promised to bring up North Korea's kidnapping of Japanese during talks with Kim. But things have changed even since.

Seoul and Pyongyang agreed in the Panmunjom Declaration that they will push for trilateral talks among South Korea, North Korea and the US, or four-party talks with China with a view to turning the armistice agreement into a peace treaty this year, the 65th anniversary of the agreement. In either talks, Japan will be excluded.

Tokyo is being marginalized in North Korea's diplomacy. Among the participants of the Six-Party Talks, only leaders of Russia and Japan have not planned a meeting with Kim. But Kim met visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on May 31 and is likely to visit Russia this year, leaving Japan in an awkward position.

In fact, even Japan is not sure what makes it a stakeholder in the Korean Peninsula issue. It used to play up the nuclear threat posed by North Korea as an excuse, but as hopes rise on resolving the nuclear issue, Japan turns out to be dispensable over it. Thus Japan can only keep bringing up the kidnapping issue, which however has little significance compared to the nuclear crisis.

What Abe can rely on is just the Japan-US alliance so that he puts forward his demands about the peninsula to maintain the country's regional clout. Although Japan is getting less discourse power on the peninsula, it's not completely useless for Trump.

Trump has a habit of haggling over every penny. Although he will take credit for meeting Kim, he doesn't even want to pay for Kim's expenses in Singapore. Pyongyang will likely seek compensation for abandoning its nuclear arsenal.

Will Trump be willing to open his wallet by then? The answer is uncertain. That's when Japan can play its role. It would be a nice option for Trump to have the US take the credit and Japan to pay the bill.

What concerns Japan most is that China and the US could reach an agreement leaving out Japan in the cold. Abe doesn't want the North Korea issue to herald a change so that Japan is cast aside by China and the US on major international affairs.

Hence he has taken pains to ascertain Japan's position in the US' Asia-Pacific strategy. It's foreseeable that Abe will reiterate Japan's importance in this strategy when meeting Trump and convey his willingness to pay the price.

The author is associate professor at School of History and Cultures, Sichuan University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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