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On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will call President Trump at his Florida resort for two days of meetings and meals. It may serve as a relief for the duo: Abe and Trump are facing scandals at home, with investigators and journalists analyzing the evidence of the supposed cronyism of both leaders.
Your last summit in Mar-a-Lago – the pair has already met twice during Trump's time in office – may offer a brief window to change the conversation. But it can also end a new and turbulent period of relations between the United States and Japan.
As my colleagues reported, the Trump administration has recently stirred up pens in Tokyo. First, Abe's government was alarmed by the White House's decision to embrace talks with North Korea and launch a diplomatic process that could minimize long-standing Japanese concerns. Then, he was hurt by Trump's decision not to grant Japan exemptions from the new US steel and aluminum tariffs, which makes Japan the only important ally in the United States that does not receive such an exemption. (Washington granted Seoul an exemption after reviewing the terms of its current bilateral free trade agreement.)
It was a personal blow to Abe, who, unlike the liberal president of South Korea, has endeavored to build a Friendly relationship with Trump. . "Abe was the first foreign leader to visit Trump after the election, and the two have met and spoken 20 times, more interactions than Trump has had with any other world leader. a-Lago, after the meetings and a round of golf last year, "wrote David Nakamura and Anna Fifield.
During Trump's visit to Japan last year, Abe even fell into a bunker as the two leaders played golf. This year, he seems to be caught in a much larger trap of his own creation. "I think the Japanese thought Abe knew how to handle Trump, that was his big mistake," said Clyde Prestowitz, one of the main trade negotiators in the Reagan administration, in the Los Angeles Times.
In North Korea, the two countries have distanced themselves since the last time Trump and Abe met. While the United States is pressuring North Korea to de-nuclearize, Tokyo is concerned that the White House could risk lifting the US security umbrella over the Asia-Pacific region. In Mar-a-Lago, Abe and his colleagues will ask Trump for guarantees that this is not the case.
"Japanese officials try to ensure that Trump presses to reduce the threat posed by the short and medium range of the North, missiles, in addition to its nuclear arsenal and intercontinental ballistic missiles," my colleagues reported. "And Abe will also emphasize human rights, including the unresolved abductions of at least 13 Japanese by North Korean agents in the 70s and 80s"
But US and Japanese interests will be difficult to reconcile if Trump turns out too much anxious in his search to find a historic breakthrough. "If Trump moves quickly in his conversations with Kim, that could put Abe in a very disadvantageous position, Abe is afraid of that," Takao Toshikawa, a veteran political journalist in Tokyo, told Fifield. "So Abe should tell Trump that Japan and the United States should act as one and urge Trump to understand Japan's position on North Korean issues as well as economic problems."
On trade, Abe had a fleeting glimpse of hope last week when it was learned that Trump was weighing the return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the regional free trade pact backed by the Japanese. One of Trump's first acts as president was to withdraw the United States from the agreement, which has since been reconstituted without Washington as a central actor.
"If he succeeds, he would undo one of the worst mistakes of his administration, which does not have exactly no mistakes," Edward Alden wrote for the Nikkei Asian Review. "And it would reassure Japan and other US trade partners in Asia that the strategic interests of the US in the region are strong enough to overcome Trump's impulses."
But Trump quickly disappointed the viewers in Tokyo, tweeting that Japan would first have to negotiate a new bilateral trade agreement with the United States. So far, the Japanese have shown little interest in such conversations.
It is yet another example of Trump's apparent blindness to the needs of geopolitical partners, even for a long time. "The risk of a transactional foreign policy of" America First "is that it raises doubts to the allies about whether joint interests will guide US strategy and actions," wrote Mireya Solis of the Brookings Institution. "The alliances represent a marriage of fundamental interests, Prime Minister Abe needs this consolation, but will Trump provide it?"
Even if Trump somehow gives Abe the public guarantees he can seek, the Japanese prime minister can take a long time in his position. Despite comfortably winning a new term in last year's parliamentary elections, Abe's control is fading as he faces a pair of national scandals involving allegations that he helped friends from two educational institutions get a deal special from the government. Over the weekend, tens of thousands of Japanese protesters gathered in front of parliament, calling for the Prime Minister's resignation; the approval ratings of Abe and his cabinet are at Trumpian levels.
Junichiro Koizumi, a long-time predecessor of Abe, told a Japanese journalist that "the situation is getting dangerous" for the prime minister and he wondered if he could choose to resign as early as this summer. All of Abe's movements in Florida will be observed by the Japanese press corps traveling, and Trump may be in a position to extend a sympathetic hand.
As Sheila Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote: "You both want to pass the time." away from the cameras, trying to resolve their differences and putting on a strong statesman's face as they struggle through this increasingly tense era. "But a false step or a disagreement could make the brightness of the reflectors even harder.
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