by Garrett Dee

Photo Credit: Cabinet Public Relations Office

JAPANESE PRIME minister Shinzo Abe visited the United States last week to meet with US president Donald Trump to discuss the future of US-Japan relations, often considered a key relationship in the Asia Pacific, but one that had faced significant strain in the wake of Trump’s election. Though much of the weekend was dominated by the distracting spectacle that occurred at Mar-a-Lago during the open-air handling of a response to a North Korean missile test, the substance of the weekend-long discussion between the two heads of state warrants a closer examination given the shifting balance of power in the Asia Pacific.

Though Abe had previously met with Trump in Trump Tower shortly following his election as US president last November, there remained trepidations about the future of the relationship heading into this latest meeting. US trade relations with Asian countries have been a major point of contention for the Trump administration, with Trump repeatedly leveling vocal criticisms of US trade partners in Asia as manipulating trade and currency policies in order to take advantage of the United States.

In particular, Trump had criticized Japan for what he perceived as a large trade imbalance between the two countries. In the past, Trump had singled out the automobile industry as an example of this imbalance, claiming that it was nearly impossible for American automobile manufacturers to sell cars in Japan and criticizing Japanese automobile company Toyota for opening a factory in Mexico. Abe countered this criticism by claiming that US automobile manufacturers do not advertise heavily enough in Japan.

Trump meeting with Abe for the first time in November 2016. Photo credit: Cabinet Public Relations Office

More recently, Trump turned his attention towards Japan’s currency policy as proof of its advantageous position economically. Trump has claimed that Japan is attempting to bilk the United States through devaluation of its currency, accusing Tokyo of having engaged in quantitative easing in order to make the yen fall against the dollar, undercutting Japanese exports to the United States. Indeed, Japan does run a $69 million trade surplus in relation to the US, and is one of the largest holders of US debt, though Abe has denied that Tokyo is attempting to engage in currency manipulation, which is against international trade regulations.

Thus, one of the objectives of Abe’s trip to the US seemed to be to reassure Trump of the mutual benefit of expanding the US-Japan economic relationship. To this effect, Abe was reported as having leaned on major Japanese companies prior to his trip in order to deliver a concrete figure to Trump promising job creation and investment in the United States. No doubt, this was partly inspired by anxiety created over the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the United States from negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement which Abe had heavily championed and which was seen as a way to expand trade between the US and Japan, given the lack of an existing trade agreement between the two nations. Though Abe stated that he had convinced Trump of the significance of the deal, it is unlikely that Trump will revisit the issue in light of his previous positions and his executive order ending US involvement in the trade deal. 

Upon his return to Japan, Abe also announced to Japanese television that he and Trump had discussed the issue of Japanese relations with Russia, during which Trump had encouraged Abe to seek closer ties with Putin. This is keeping with form, as the Trump administration has actively encouraged a warming of relations towards Russia, who has been an international pariah since its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Nonetheless, the Trump administration’s policy towards Russia has come under intense scrutiny by the media and members of the US government following the scandal involving former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador.

Historically, Japan and Russia have been at odds since at least the resolution of the Second World War. Technically having never signed a peace treaty resolving that war, Russian and Japan are locked in an intense territorial dispute over the possession of the Kuril islands off the coast of Hokkaido, islands which the Russian government claims were ceded to it under the San Francisco Treaty of 1951. This claim is not recognized by Japan. The opposition of right-wing nationalists in Japan and members of the Japanese government to a detente with Russia until it relinquishes its claim to the islands has been a major stumbling block in efforts to normalize relations between the two countries.

However, Abe has seemingly been attempting to rectify this situation by extending overtures to Russia to increasing cooperation between Japan and Russia despite historical tensions, a policy that had begun even before the outcome of the US election. Despite the Obama administration’s opposition to the fostering of closer ties between Tokyo and Moscow, Abe and Putin have had an increased amount of contact in recent years. The two met most recently in Japan last December to discuss potential areas of cooperation in the future, culminating in the agreement to set up a $1 billion investment fund between Japan and Russia.

For the time being, though, Abe faces an uphill battle in creating a more cooperative relationship between his government and the Kremlin. While Abe may have hoped that this most recent meeting with Putin would have broken new ground in the stalled bilateral relationship between the two countries, he was unable to gain any Russian concession on the matter of the Kiril islands, meaning the issue will continue to be a sticking point for the foreseeable future. Additionally, Russian bombers circumnavigated the Japanese islands following the announcement that US Secretary of Defense Mattis would be conducting his first overseas trip to Japan and South Korea early this month, prompting the Japanese government to scramble fighters in response and raising the tensions between the two nations yet again.

Vladimir Putin. Photo credit: Kremlin

The attempted thawing of tensions between these nations might be in response to the growing influence of China in the region. Indeed, Japan is often seen as quite friendless in the Asia Pacific region due to its history of imperialist aggression, and the rise of China in economic and military power is often seen as one of its most pressing threats in the region given the proximity between the two nations and their deep antagonism. For Abe, attempting to secure a more cooperative relationship with both the US and Russia may serve as a counterbalance against an outbreak of aggression in an already tense relationship with Beijing. 

This, then, adds a sense of urgency to Abe’s position given the precarious role that the US now plays in the Asia Pacific region. Though US military presence in the region at once seemed a permanent fixture, Trump’s threats to withdraw bases from Japan and South Korea unless those countries began to contribute more to their defenses—a strategy similar to the one now being utilized against NATO allies—casts doubt on the future of the relationship. Though the justifiable withdrawal of the deeply unpopular US military bases would satisfy much of the Japanese population, the Abe administration has opposed it, calling the bedrock of US-Japan relations. Abe’s positive statements upon his return to Tokyo that this was no longer a point of contention between the two nations seems to signal a partial success on his part in reassuring Trump of Abe’s desire to retain the US as Japan’s key ally.

Like many countries in the Asia Pacific region, Japan remains deeply apprehensive about the growing influence of China in its own backyard. Following the breakdown of TPP talks and the uncertainty over the future balance of military power in the region, Japan remains particularly vulnerable to any shift in the balance of power between China and other nations. Abe’s meetings with both Trump and Putin signal his awareness of the fragility of Japan’s situation and his desire to prevent Japan’s isolation. For now, Abe seems to believe that the most effective strategy to preclude Chinese aggression is to align Japan with perhaps the most unlikely of allies.   

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