As the senior statesman in the region, the Trilateral Summit provides PM Abe the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in the region. Successful summitry may garner him valuable political capital to fight back against a domestic insurgency within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to remove him as President of the Party and ultimately PM of Japan. A poor showing at the summit may only reinforce the intra-party narrative and nationwide sentiment that its time for new leadership.
The Summit itself will be focused on North Korea, trade and creating the climate for broader cooperation on a broad range of non-traditional security issues such as the environment, post-disaster cooperation, and resource management. These are apolitical issues for each leader and as a result will not stand the intense scrutiny that other forms of cooperation or understandings may entail such as working together on historical issues, territorial disputes or transparency issues in the ESC and SCS.
We need to talk about North Korea
Both PM Abe and Premier Li will be keen to learn from President Moon as to what progress he has made vis-à-vis the region’s perennial troublemaker, North Korea. The Inter-Korean Summit had few take homes and its clear that North Korea’s official statements that they have not deviated from its long-held position that it remains committed to the denuclearization of North Korea. The caveat here is only if the Korean peninsula and the region at large (including Japan) is expunged of the US nuclear umbrella and associated military infrastructure that can pose a threat to the North Korean regime. Both leaders will be anxious to learn what preparations have been made for the upcoming tête-a-tête between President Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.
Here, PM Abe can do little to shape the upcoming summit between Kim and Trump save stress Japan’s enduring concerns that stress denuclearization should also include short, mid and long-range missile systems, biological and chemical weapons as well as submarine launch platforms will also be on the table. PM Abe will also press President Moon on the politically popular yet likely unresolvable abducted Japanese that still may be alive in the North. The message has been conveyed to President Trump directly now its time that PM Abe does the same with President Moon.
This may not be so easy as President Moon seems to not be predisposed to PM Abe as evidence by the walk-back from the December 2015 Comfort Women Agreement and continued demands for a sincere apology over the Comfort Women issue. While politically difficult, PM Abe should be contrite and stress that while he may disagree with the pushback against the 2015 agreement. At the same time, he should stress that the grassroots demonstrations against the agreement demonstrate that South Kores and Japan have deeply shared values including liberal democratic institutions, freedom of the press, and the freedom to push back against the government when citizens feel government decisions do not represent the voices of their citizens. In the spirit of shared values, PM Abe should stress that the Japanese government will do more to demonstrate their sincerity on the Comfort Women issue but also their stalwart support for inter-Korean reconciliation.
Any recognition of Japanese interests by the Moon administration will be a good omen for Japan but will need follow-up by the Trump Administration at the DRPK-US Summit and in the endless summits to come.
Trade: Unity in Division
On trade, the trifecta of Northeast States has much in common as export-oriented economies. No doubt they will try to stress their solidarity that open-trade is good for each respective country and good for the greatest detractor of free trade at the moment, the Trump Administration. This is where the solidarity ends. China is facing increasing pressure from the US following the recent US-China trade talks in Beijing ranging from trade-deficit reduction to reducing tariff barriers.
Japan, in contrast, has championed free and open tree as evidenced in the CPTPP and the Japan-EU EPA despite the withdrawal of the Trump Administration from the TPP upon the election of Mr. Trump. South Korea, on the other hand, has chosen to renegotiate the KORUS agreement covering such areas as automobiles, customs processes, and investment.
Japan clearly prefers the CPTPP and eventual re-entry of the US and additional countries into the CPTPP as its ideal trade model going forward. South Korea is seating on the fence as it currently is looking into the benefits of joining the CPTPP. Much of their decision will depend on the trajectory of inter-Korean negotiations going forward.
China sees the CPTPP as an ABC (anybody but China) agreement. As a result, it is pushing its ‘Community of Common Destiny’ and the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ stressing win-win relationships, mutual respect, and co-operation. While positive in rhetoric, both South Korea and Japan are reluctant to overtly support these initiatives do to past experiences in which Beijing applied punitive economic measures against each country when politics deviated. The post-THAAD-installment punitive economic measures in South Korea and the post-nationalization of the Senkaku islands anti-Japanese riots in the fall of 2012 are strong deterrents to deepen economic ties.
With these trade divisions clear, PM Abe should stress the opportunity associated with a trilateral FTA between China, Japan and South Korea and/ or accelerating the RCEP trade agreement. Neither is of the quality of the CPTPP nor will they accrue the same economic benefits for Japan, but both should be pursued simultaneously as they may pull the US back to the CPTPP table. Trump’s “America First” strategy will not benefit from the successful conclusion of the RCEP or a China-South Korea-Japan FTA. PM Abe could catalyse US entry but demonstrating that it has trade alternatives as well.
Any progress on trade, denuclearization and the abductee issue will amass political capital for PM Abe’s domestic struggles demonstrating that his experience is an asset for Japan, not a liability, especially in dealing with mercurial leadership from long-time allies or experienced autocrats in the region. Importantly, success will mean a continuation of strategic economic, security and diplomatic policies that have helped return Japan to a leading position within the region and the world. Failure may lead to the revolving leadership and lack of long-term policy implementation that marked much of Japan’s post-bubble economy era.