Abe’s gamble on Trump threatens to backfire

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shakes hands with US President Donald Trump during the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, 28 June 2019 (Photo: Reuters via Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev).

Author: Tsuneo Akaha, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

Even before US President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took steps to develop a personalised relationship with the new leader to put Japan–US relations on a sustainable trajectory. He has since held more than 40 face-to-face meetings and phone conversations with Trump — but has little to show for it.

Abe is concerned about the shifting balance of power in Asia — China’s spectacular rise, the United States’ relative decline, and Japan’s ‘lost decades’. Another element of change is Russia’s ‘pivot to the east’, a reaction to its deteriorating relations with the West over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Against this backdrop, Tokyo wants to ensure that the United States will be a stabilising regional force.

After gambling on Trump to help stabilise Japan’s security environment and protect its foreign policy and national security interests, Abe now faces the disturbing consequences of Trump’s unpredictable and disruptive character. The Trump administration has undergone top-level personnel changes of unprecedented frequency. The very legitimacy of his presidency is under question due to evidence of pro-Trump Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the Trump administration’s attempts to obstruct justice during subsequent FBI investigations.

Trump’s major policy decisions are equally unsettling. Under the banner of ‘America First’, Washington has unilaterally withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Iran nuclear deal, as well as renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement — all international agreements supported by Tokyo.

Unilateralism also characterises Washington’s approach toward Pyongyang, one of the most pressing problems for Tokyo. Trump has held three meetings with Kim Jong-un — in Singapore in June 2018, Hanoi in February 2019, and Panmunjom in June 2019 …continue reading