Abe's balancing act

Japan prime minister has to balance results with public perception in talks with Trump

By: Eric Johnson
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Photo: Drop of Light/Shutterstock
   Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in a no-win, no-lose situation when it comes to relations with the new U.S. presidential administration, according a policy expert at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
   But that doesn’t mean things aren’t a little delicate when it comes to dealing with a new leader whose motivations many in Japan are yet to fully understand.
   Abe is due in Washington to meet with President Donald Trump over the next two days, including a weekend jaunt to Trump’s resort in Florida for a round of golf. Talk will inevitably cover a range of issues between the two countries, including defense alliances, North Korea, trade, and Japanese infrastructure investment in the United States.
   Yuki Tatsumi, senior Associate of the East Asia program at Stimson, said Abe will have a public perception tightrope to walk back at home.
   “The sense in Tokyo very mixed,” she said. “The harsh talk about trade practices makes Tokyo nervous, but they’re less nervous about defense issues in Asia-Pacific region. Abe has a fine balance to strike. On the one hand, he wants to engage and wants Trump to think he’s positively engaged. On the other hand, there is anxiety about way U.S. is going. This is all being reported back to Japan. What would it do to Abe’s image to be seen to be too close to Trump? If he comes out of this visit as being seen as bending over backward on trade and economic issues, that will not be a positive for him domestically.”
   Tatsumi also said the last-hurdle failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact in which the United States and Japan were the two biggest economies involved, is something Abe will have to overcome because he was a major proponent of the deal.
   “There is domestic political opposition over TPP when there was little chance of this flying,” she said. “He’s in a tight corner. He’s in a good position not because of his strength, but because of the utter weakness of those opposing him.”
   Hence, Abe’s no-win, no-lose situation.
   It’s clearly a balancing act that many foreign leaders will face with the new administration.
   For Japan, the relationship is key as a counterpoint to that of its relationship with its neighbor China, with which it has a substantial, but fraught connection. The United States and China are far and away Japan’s biggest trading partners, but the U.S. offers Japan defense support.
   However, that close relationship has never included a free trade agreement. While the collapse of the TPP ended one path toward an FTA between the nations, it is expected that Trump and Abe will at least the discuss the possibility of a bilateral agreement.
   Abe is also expected to discuss Japanese investment packages that will aid Trump’s designs on U.S. infrastructure construction and job creation while they, as one expert put it, “concede putts to each other.”
   William Reinsch, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, said it’s interesting to note how the story of cross-Pacific investment has flipped.
“We used to do that,” he said. “We used to go to countries and say we’ll help you (with infrastructure). I think Trump will bring up an FTA with Abe. He needs to do something having tanked the TPP, and Japan is the most important. A lot of the business enthusiasm in the TPP was because Japan was in it. I don’t know if Trump will be that specific (about the particulars of an FTA). If Abe is smart, he won’t concede anything.”
   Nate Olson, director of Stimson’s Trade21 Initiative, said he could see Trump and his team playing Chinese and Japanese investment pledges against one another.
   Whatever Abe faces over the next few days could go a long way toward defining Japan’s trade relationship with the United States, his future back home, and perception of the Trump administration as reasonable trading partners.