Trump's Visit Re-Energized Japan
Cabinet Public Relations Office of Japan via AP
Trump's Visit Re-Energized Japan
Cabinet Public Relations Office of Japan via AP
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U.S. President Donald Trump’s trip to Asia has been widely criticized in the United States, but the aftertaste it left in Tokyo is far from bitter. Japanese officials were reassured of the strength of their alliance with Washington in the face of the North Korean threat, and they avoided bilateral trade negotiations with the United States. At the end of the 12-day trip, officials welcomed the message that the “U.S. is here to stay” in the Asia-Pacific — a message that continues to decouple economic and security issues, in line with Japanese preferences.

Feeling secure in Tokyo’s alliance with the United States, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will now probably intensify his country’s engagement with third parties to address the challenges posed by a rising China and a nuclear North Korea, as well as the future of free trade and the liberal international order. Abe scored another important foreign policy success on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in the form of a ministerial agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership with the other countries remaining after the United States’ departure. (There are 11 countries, Japan included.) A free-trade agreement with the European Union may be finalized as early as next month, consolidating Japan’s geo-economic engagement with the world.

The Not-So-Secret Ingredient of U.S.-Japan Relations

Trump’s visit met the prerequisites of success before it even started. Symbolism is especially important in this part of the world, so his choice to begin the five-country tour in Japan – after a series of high level visits from members of his Cabinet this year and of his daughter Ivanka just days before Trump’s arrival – sent a powerful message. 

Abe rolled out a spotless red carpet, including a lot of face time between the two leaders and their spouses, a meeting with the Japanese Emperor and Empress, and a round of golf – Trump’s favorite hobby – with Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama. The two leaders gushed over each other, talking at length about their close friendship and “extraordinary” relationship. Abe graciously ignored some of Trump’s cruder references to the trade imbalances between the two countries and made sure to get a lot of face time with the U.S. leader at the APEC summit the following week as well.

Some commentators in Tokyo worry about the possible negative consequences of the close personal connection between the two leaders. However, Abe appears to consider it key for a strong U.S.-Japan relationship, especially when his high-level diplomats still don’t have U.S. counterparts to talk to because of the slow speed of nominations.

Strong Cooperation on North Korea and Defense Issue

The Japanese welcomed Trump’s public and private reassurances on the North Korean threat. They also appreciated his support for a “free and fair Indo-Pacific,” a concept of which the prime minister was an early proponent. Some diplomats in Tokyo privately praise Trump’s fiery rhetoric on the matter and his tough stance on possible negotiations. They prefer this approach to the Obama administration’s stated policy of strategic patience. 

The North Korea threat also provided the perfect opportunity for the two countries to intensify their defense cooperation. The U.S. Navy’s USS Ronald Reagan conducted three days of drills with a Japanese destroyer and two Indian warships in the Sea of Japan at the time of Trump’s visit. The U.S. president referred to Japan possibly purchasing “massive amounts of military equipment” from the United States, a win-win situation that would allow Trump to claim credit with his domestic constituencies, but that has yet to materialize.

Economic Bullet Dodged

What did not happen on this trip is at least as important as what did. Given Trump’s strong opposition to trade imbalances and his preference for bilateral deals, many parties in Tokyo worried prior to Trump’s visit that he would pressure Japan into opening formal negotiations on a free trade agreement with the United States. The fact that this did not happen was a relief, even if it is doubtful the United States has the capacity to open negotiations with another major economy in the middle of its renegotiations of NAFTA and of its free trade agreement with South Korea.

The U.S.-Japan Economic Dialogue of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso has allowed both countries to save face on this matter. For the Japanese side, the dialogue serves as the perfect tool to delay the start of bilateral FTA negotiations indefinitely. The second iteration of the economic dialogue, concluded just a few weeks before Trump’s visit, successfully accomplished this goal. Abe ultimately hopes the United States will reconsider its position toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership, even if Trump said it “was not the right idea” during his visit. Japan has been investing a lot of energy in the TPP11 negotiations to anticipate future U.S. concerns should it change its mind and join later. 

Japanese Foreign Policy Mantra Unchanged: “One Ally, Many Partners”

Japan remains strongly committed to its unique alliance with the United States, and Trump’s visit help consolidate the certainty of this relationship. Yes, Tokyo would have liked Trump to be tough on China and will closely follow as future relations unfold. Tokyo was similarly irked that a comfort woman was present at a banquet Trump attended in Seoul, and shrimp from waters it contests with South Korea was on the menu. Japanese officials’ commitment to the U.S. alliance remains strong nevertheless.

Under Abe’s leadership Japan has also diversified its foreign policy portfolio by building a network of partnerships in Asia, Europe, and other parts of the world – and will likely intensify this engagement in the future. This has particularly been the case with trade, where Japan remains committed to finalizing TPP11 and a free trade agreement with the European Union by the end of the year. These two mega-trade agreements will integrate Japan in a network of trade relations encompassing more than 50 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. This will not only enhance Japan’s economic perspective and its negotiating hand in the advent of a bilateral FTA with the United States, but also, as pointed out by many diplomats in Tokyo, positions it well to set the standards for the future FTA regimes of the 21st Century.

Irina Angelescu is a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Hitachi Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) in Tokyo. The views expressed in this piece are her own.