Abe plays Trump to counter ‘China rising’

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. (Bredan Smialowski, AFP)

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. (Bredan Smialowski, AFP)


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets United States President Donald Trump on Friday at the White House, followed by weekend sessions in Florida. The trip, after Abe became 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 amid growing military and trade tensions in Asia.

This charm offensive may already be paying some dividends, as Trump last week mentioned the “iron-clad US commitment to ensuring the security of Japan”. This was reinforced by US defence secretary James Mattis in Tokyo last week, who referred to the “unwavering alliance” between the two countries.

Abe, who in December became the first Japanese prime minister to visit Pearl Harbour 75 years after his country attacked the US base there, wants to mitigate potential risks in the bilateral relationship given Trump’s earlier negative comments on the campaign trail about Japan. Before he became president Trump criticised the country for unfair trade practices involving car imports and exports; accused it of using monetary policy to devalue its currency to boost exporters; and asserted that the bilateral security relationship had become too one-sided, with Japan needing to share more of the financial burden.

For Abe, now more than four years into his second stint as prime minister, his meetings at the White House and at Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida are intended to show the US populace and the world at large the enduring strength of US-Japan relations. To this end, one of the key announcements Abe will reportedly make in Washington concerns a multibillion-dollar package of Japanese investment measures that — playing to Trump’s “America First” narrative — will create potentially thousands of new jobs in the US.

One key reason why Abe is particularly keen to be close to Trump is Japanese concerns about a rising China in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. He has particular worries, right now, about China’s growing influence because of the uncertainties that Trump’s presidency will bring, including the unravelling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which opens up a window of opportunity for Beijing to assert itself into the vacuum of power that now exists after the trade and investment deal’s apparent collapse.

China’s alternative vision to TPP is for a Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific (FTAAP) and a pact, for which discussions have been underway since 2012, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which will not include the US, mirroring the TPP’s exclusion of Beijing.

At the heart of the debate on this issue has been not just competing trade treaties, but also differing US and Chinese visions to shape the regional order and cement their influence in it.

From China’s perspective, the RCEP and FTAAP would be much more conducive to its national interests (not least because it would be part of the new economic agreements and shape their design) by creating free trade areas with China potentially at the centre. And, by playing a lead role in championing these initiatives, Beijing aspires to burnish its regional leadership credentials.

This is playing out in the context of broader tensions in Asia-Pacific, which could be exacerbated by the unpredictability of Trump’s presidency. Already China, whose leader President Xi Jinping has not yet spoken even on the phone to Trump, let alone visited him, has been taken aback by the president’s questioning of Washington’s long-standing “one China” policy and his phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen late last year. It is believed to be the first direct contact between a US president-elect or president and his Taiwanese counterpart since the 1970s.

Moreover, there are also continuing tensions in the South China Sea where Japan has been planning to increase its activities with joint training patrols with the US and exercises with regional navies. In this theatre, it is not just Japan and the US but also other countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei that are in dispute with China in the sea through which some $5-trillion of ship-borne trade passes each year.

In the fluid geopolitical landscape, which is being reshaped as key countries manoeuvre for advantage, Abe is seeking to align his long-standing foreign policy plans with Trump’s agenda. Thus, with the US president appearing to want a more internationally assertive Japan, the Japanese prime minister is seeking to overturn much of the remaining legal and political underpinning of the country’s post-war pacifist security identity so that it can become more externally engaged.

A specific measure Abe wants to push for is abolition of Article Nine. This is the clause in Japan’s post-war Constitution that constrains the country’s military to a strictly defensive role rather than a conventional army, and has meant that defence spending has most often remained below 1% of gross domestic product.

To overturn this, Abe would need not just a two-thirds majority in both the lower house, and upper house (the House of Councillors), but also a simple majority in a national referendum. Straightforward as that may sound given Abe’s generally high domestic approval rating, it could yet prove a major challenge given the large body of Japanese public opinion that still values its post-war pacifism in the only country in the world to have ever been attacked with nuclear weapons.

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. He now senses he may also have a window of opportunity to secure landmark domestic constitutional change regarding the country’s post-war pacifism, which will enable it to become more internationally engaged — but at the risk of potentially significantly inflaming regional tensions with Beijing.

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

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