Trade trouble looms for Shinzo Abe as Trump looks to seal a US-Japan deal
William Pesek says the Japanese prime minister’s early friendliness with the US president failed to save the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and he now faces pressure to strike a bilateral deal. Talk of access to US weapons technology may help divert Trump’s attention
No world leader was more energetic in normalising Donald Trump’s shock win last year than Shinzo Abe. Nine days after the election, the Japanese prime minister was at New York’s Trump Tower pledging Japan’s allegiance. At the time, it appeared Abe’s savvy flattering of the US president-elect would position Tokyo to profit.
Chaos has reigned instead. Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a pivotal element of Abenomics. The US$1 trillion infrastructure extravaganza Japan Inc wanted a piece of hasn’t materialised. Nor do Washington’s tax cuts look promising as Russia investigations and indictments fly. Trump’s itchy Twitter fingers towards North Korea have Japanese schoolchildren doing missile drills.
Now, Trump is coming to town, pushing a deal Tokyo is set on refusing: a bilateral trade framework.
Abe spent considerable political capital rallying his party around the TPP, only to see Trump renege. Don’t worry, Trump claims, America and Japan can negotiate a deal creating millions of high-paying jobs. Trump’s pitch betrays complete ignorance of why Japan joined Barack Obama’s regional pact.
The TPP is more a geopolitical punctuation mark aimed at China. Joining this 12-nation bloc, accounting for 40 per cent of the global economy and based on Western values, was Abe’s China insurance policy. That’s why Obama’s team gave Japan latitude to protect sectors like agriculture. Abe’s November 17 sprint to New York was a last-ditch effort to keep the US in the pact.
Now, Abe’s preference to forge ahead with what remains of the TPP confronts Trump’s desperation for a big win. With his legislative prospects in tatters and scandals swirling, returning to Washington with a trade win from the No 3 economy would be a coup, but one Abe won’t give him. Abe can’t tell Trump that he’s hoping the next US leader will rejoin the TPP. He’ll have to finesse that point, while demurring as Trump says let’s a make a deal.
There’s talk that Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono will lobby Team Trump to join Australia and India on free trade and security. To Trump, though, “multilateral” is dirty word. Hence the bilateralisation of American policy.
Trump’s zero-sum world view leaves little room for equitable negotiations. Already, he’s proved himself to be more a global deal terminator than builder. After the TPP, he pulled out of the Paris climate change accord, talked about terminating the South Korea-US free trade deal and decertified the Iran nuclear pact. Trump may scuttle the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement. He’s hinted at ignoring World Trade Organisation rules.
Abe’s team, rightfully, worries that the “America-first” president will use Washington’s military defence of Tokyo as a bargaining chip. Why waste valuable time and political capital negotiating when more luck might be had waiting for 2021? Yet, progress can be made on security. Abe’s October 22 election win emboldens him to amend Japan’s war-renouncing constitution – and improve defences against Pyongyang. Abe can divert Trump’s attention to accessing US weapons technology. That may include Japan hosting Terminal High Altitude Area Defence systems, along with South Korea. Earlier this year, members of Abe’s defence team visited Guam to inspect Aegis Ashore weapons-interception systems.
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Abe also should cash in a couple of the Trump Tower chips from last November and school the president on the dangers of his “fire and fury” threats. Trump’s “little rocket man” Twitter trolling doesn’t seem all fun and games here. Tokyo, Abe should stress, is an easy target for Kim Jong-un’s nuclear missiles – a vital American ally within firing range.
The main objective for Abe is just to show Trump a good time. That means going heavy on flattery, J-pop performances and golf outings, but light on topics that might provoke an early morning @realdonaldtrump rant. Anything to avoid getting trumped by the dealmaker-in-chief .
William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist and the author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades. Twitter: @williampesek