Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s hastily organised visit to Mara-Lago to meet President Trump comes at a time in which a constellation of significant events has caused Japan to recalibrate its diplomatic approach with both North Korea and the US.
At the domestic level, Abe faces scandals at home that threatens to derail the political stability and strategic vision that has come with his tenure as Prime Minister since December 2012. The Moritomo and Kake scandals have not only dented his domestic support amongst constituents but also emboldened some political rivals within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to more openly challenge his leadership in the upcoming LDP presidential election.
This domestic insurgency is complicating Abe’s ability to garner support for a more forthright approach to North Korea, as well as his ability to manage relations with China and an “America First” Trump administration.
At a regional level, Pyongyang’s Olympic and post-Olympic diplomacy has altered the momentum within the region. Countries are no longer unified behind a sustained “maximum pressure” approach to defanging Pyongyang’s strategic nuclear deterrent.
By first peeling away the South Koreans from a united front against Pyongyang through the offering of a North-South Head of State Summit, and then resuscitating the Pyongyang-Beijing relationship with Kim’s visit to Beijing last month, North Korea has maximised the fractures in the united approach to force it to succumb to denuclearization.
Trump’s surprise declaration that he would meet Kim Jong-un without consulting US allies has left the Abe administration wondering whether its interests will be represented at the negotiating table.
Abe’s visit with Trump, therefore, needs to be characterised by communication, cooperation and consolidation.
In terms, of communication, Abe needs to convey to Trump that merely stopping the North’s inter-continental ballistic missile capabilities or nuclear program would still leave Japan and South Korea vulnerable to threats from Pyongyang. These would include the mid-range missiles and plethora of submarine-based missile systems that Pyongyang has invested heavily in.
The most worrisome threats include short and mid-range systems such as No-Dong systems, Scud missiles and a newer mobile solid-fuelled SS-21 variant called the KN-02. North Korea’s long track record of conducting short and mid-range missiles into the Sea of Japan exacerbates Tokyo’s concerns.
While short and mid-range missiles remain the central concern for Tokyo, Abe also needs to convey to Trump that the North Korean regime is a long-term security challenge in the region, especially if it maximises it byungjin objectives of parallel nuclear and economic development. In this case, even a relatively strong North Korean economy that had nuclear weapons would be in a position to engage in nuclear blackmail with South Korea, and potentially Japan.
It’s conceivable that Pyongyang could promote reunification or some kind of federation on favourable terms or pressure the South to end their longstanding alliance with the US. In either scenario, America’s presence would diminish or be removed altogether. Meanwhile, Japan’s security would be severely compromised, not only in relation to North Korea but also in the context of China’s march towards regional hegemony.
In the economic realm, Abe will want to impress upon Trump that the US and Japan are economic partners, not rivals, and that punitive measures such as steel tariffs on Japan are unnecessary and unwarranted. Trump’s recent comments on potentially rejoining a renegotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership will no doubt be encouraged by Abe, who has crafted a successor trade agreement which intentionally leaves room for the US to reconsider at some later stage.
Abe needs to communicate to President Trump that the TPP is not just an economic agreement that lays down trade rules that would shape the evolution of trade in the 21st century. It is also an agreement that has security components that could help buttress the Quadrilateral initiative and Indo-Pacific concept.
Pressing Japan’s national security concerns are of paramount importance for this visit. At the same time, Abe needs to stress, like he has done from the moment it became apparent that Trump would indeed become president, that Japan will maximise its cooperation with the US to deal with security issues in the region. This cooperation has manifested in the strengthening of the US-Japan Alliance since Trump became president, increasing the number of joint operations, and standing side-by-side with the US in its efforts to intensify pressure on the North.
The Abe Administration should continue this deepening of relations, but also stress its intention to other forms of cooperation with the US, such as the Quadrilateral initiative to promote a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. If Abe can facilitate America’s return to the TPP, this would demonstrate Japan’s commitment to fostering a fair and mutually beneficial trading relationship.
Crucially, through economic cooperation and multilateral trade agreements, Japan and the US can maximise not only their longstanding military alliance, but also their economic comparative advantages to balance China’s Belt and Road Initiative and efforts to become the regional hegemon.
The bar for success is very high for Abe. Without solid wins from his meeting with Trump, he may find it increasingly difficult to manage the domestic political insurgency at home and be forced to step down from leadership. On the flip side, a successful visit may garner him valuable political capital to maintain his leadership, achieve his security objectives vis-a-vis North Korea and China, and the time to see his economic policies bear fruit.
(This article was published on Asia and Pacific Policy Society on the 17th of April 2018 and is republished on Glos Review under Dr. Steven R. Nagy’s expressed consent.)