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Shinzo Abe

For Abe, a visit to the Trump White House is a key stop en route to a stronger Japan

Andrew Hammond says the Japanese leader’s visit to the US this week underlines his desire to draw closer to the new Trump administration, in an effort to strengthen Japan’s heft in the face of China’s rise

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 February, 2017, 2:19pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 February, 2017, 7:53pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets US President Donald Trump on Friday at the White House, followed by weekend sessions in Florida. The trip, which follows Abe becoming the first foreign leader last November to meet Trump after his election victory, reflects the prime minister’s desire to form a close personal bond with the president.

Already, it seems that this charm offensive may be paying some dividends, with Trump pointing last week to the “ironclad US commitment to ensuring the security of Japan”. This was reinforced by US Defence Secretary James Mattis, who said on a visit to Tokyo last week that the US stands “100 per cent, shoulder-to-shoulder” with Japan.

Japan PM Shinzo Abe aims to strengthen alliance with United States under Donald Trump

Abe, who in December became the first Japanese prime minister to visit Pearl Harbour some 75 years after his country’s attack on the US base there, is keen to mitigate potential risks in the bilateral relationship, given Trump’s earlier negative comments about Tokyo. Trump had criticised the country for unfair trade practices involving car imports and exports and accused it of using monetary policy to devalue its currency to boost exporters. On the campaign trail, he asserted that the bilateral security relationship had become too one-sided.

Abe’s words at Pearl Harbour were purely for effect, with an eye on China

For Abe, his meetings with Trump are intended to showcase to the world the enduring strength of US-Japan relations. To this end, one of the key announcements that Abe will reportedly make in Washington concerns a multibillion-dollar package of Japanese investment measures that – playing to Trump’s “America first” narrative – will potentially create thousands of new jobs in the US.

Japan worries about China’s growing influence in the context of the uncertainties Trump’s presidency will bring. The unravelling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for example, could open a window of opportunity for Beijing to further assert itself.

President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) has yet to even speak on the phone with Trump, let alone visit him. Beijing has been taken aback by the president’s questioning of Washington’s long-standing “one China” policy, and Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen late last year. Moreover, there are continuing tensions in the South China Sea, where Japan has been planning to ramp up its activities through joint training patrols with the US and exercises with regional navies.

As key countries manoeuvre for advantage in a fluid geopolitical landscape, Abe is seeking to align his foreign policy plans with those on Trump’s agenda. He is known to favour a more internationally assertive Japan, and has been seeking to overturn much of the remaining legal and political underpinnings of the country’s post-war pacifist security identity.

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Specifically, Abe wants to push for abolition of Article 9 of the post-war constitution, which constrains the country’s military to a strictly defensive role. Yet, even with his generally high approval rating domestically, it could prove a major challenge, given the large body of public opinion which still values its post-war pacifism.

Taken overall, the Washington and Florida meetings represent Abe’s latest move to fortify Japan’s long-standing US alliance, in the face of China’s rise. Four years into his second term as prime minister, Abe now senses a chance to secure landmark domestic constitutional change around the country’s post-war pacifism, which will enable it to become more internationally engaged, but at the risk of inflaming regional tensions with Beijing.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics