While US President Donald Trump’s administration remains unpopular after more than two years in office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s handling of US–Japan relations is highly admired — at least in Japan. Kiichi Fujiwara specially for the East Asia Forum.
Abe’s strategy was to embrace Trump. He visited the President-elect’s office in New York immediately after the election with a gift of a golden Honma golf driver followed by an invitation to Trump’s residence in Mar-a-Lago. The golf-centred ‘bromance’ led to a series of summit meetings, continuing up until Trump’s state visit to Tokyo in May 2019 and his attendance at the G20 summit in Osaka in June 2019.
There is little question that Abe and Trump are on a first-name basis — a relationship between a US president and a Japanese prime minister that in the past has only been seen between Reagan and Nakasone and Bush and Koizumi.
The Abe–Trump relationship is supported by a stronger role for the Prime Minister’s Office in Japan. Traditionally, key ministries maintained prerogatives in Japan’s policy-making process leading to a decentralised government with little power left for the prime minister. But Abe established the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs in 2012, casting his influence on the choice of 600 key positions in the government.
In foreign policy, the role that was previously played by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has now been taken over by the Prime Minister’s Office, leading to what pundits have called Kantei Gaiko (diplomacy from the Prime Minister’s Office). There have been cases such as Nakasone and Koizumi, two prime ministers who had tried to make key foreign policy decisions, but their efforts fell far short of the expanded role of the prime minister in the Abe administration.
Despite Abe enjoying a strong personal tie with Trump, the bond has not produced US policies that align with Japan’s interests. After Trump assumed office, the United States pulled out from both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Agreement on climate change — two agreements that Tokyo supported and viewed as top policy priorities.
On trade, the United States imposed new tariffs on steel and aluminium products. On the US–Japan alliance, Trump openly stated that the defence treaty with Japan was unfair and needed to be changed. With tough pressure on trade and hints of geopolitical decoupling, it would be difficult to think of a more unfavourable set of policies directed towards Japan.
The irony of the Abe–Trump bromance is that, by embracing Trump, Abe constructed an image that Japan would follow the United States no matter what.
Abe’s approach to Trump can partially be explained by Japan’s geopolitical concerns over the rise of China. Frustrated by the Obama administration’s approach which failed to stop Chinese advances in the South China Sea, the arrival of Trump seemed to offer a new opportunity for the United States to confront the geopolitical challenge posed by China. The unpredictability of the Trump administration — while a matter of concern for the rest of the world — could work as an asset for Japan, as it has been thought that Beijing might give in to increasing US pressure.
Developments in the first year-and-a-half of the Trump administration moved in this direction. With Trump’s frightening choice of words around North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, China began to support economic sanctions on North Korea, possibly in fear of the consequences of a unilateral US strike on North Korea.
Different perspectives mean that the United States and Japan bring different priorities to their China policies. For Japan, China is predominantly a geopolitical source of anxiety and a rising military power that challenges the regional balance of power. On the other hand, the United States — or at least Trump — sees China primarily as an economic foe and a ‘currency manipulator’ with a huge trade surplus.
This difference in perspectives has led to US policies diverging from Tokyo’s priorities. Trump reversed his initial aggressive policy towards North Korea and met Kim Jong-un in person while imposing high tariff rates on a wide range of imported goods from China. Although Tokyo shared US concerns with China’s economic policies, economic engagement with China was also an opportunity for growth of the Japanese economy. There was recognition that trade regulations imposed on China’s exports could lead to a global economic recession. It is quite ironic that a tough China policy from the United States is now causing more anxiety than appreciation in Japan.
Foreign policy experts in Japan were aware of the gap in priorities between the United States and Japan and the possible chaos of Trump’s unpredictable behaviour. But here the effects of Kantei Gaiko kicks in. The voices of the professionals have been silenced by the huge power accumulated in the Prime Minister’s Office, leading to a series of policy failures such as Abe’s visit to Iran which had a negligible impact on Iran’s aggressive policies. Abe may enjoy good relations with Trump, but any reward that may come from it is yet to be seen.
Kiichi Fujiwara is Director at the Institute for Future Initiatives and Professor at the Graduate School for Law and Politics, the University of Tokyo.
This article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Japan’s leadership moment‘, Vol. 11, No. 3.