If there were an Oscar or a Tony for diplomacy, it should go to Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and his team at the Prime Minister’s office. They have managed to stage an official visit by the President of the United States that is almost completely free of serious policy discussion, but laden with policy purpose.
If all goes according to plan – always a big ‘if’ for any official visit but even more for one involving Donald Trump – this will be a series of visuals that should fill the airwaves of both countries, with barely a hint of a cloud to block the sunny scene. The message of alliance unity, and the equally important nod to the great leadership of both men, will be uninterrupted.
The schedule for the visit is a carefully orchestrated series of message moments. And the first and most important purpose is to showcase the personal relationship between the two men, one cultivated by Abe and the Japanese government to an extent that dwarfs similar efforts by other governments around the globe.
At the core of Abe’s care and feeding of Trump is, quite naturally, golf. After Trump’s arrival on Saturday May 25, the visit begins on Sunday morning with a round of golf at the Mobara Country Club course in nearby Chiba, accompanied by Japanese pro Isao Aoki. The first ladies will head to a nearby art museum for a bit of culture.
Then it is off to the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament, now in process, at the Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall in Tokyo where Trump will present the President’s Cup (or by some accounts, the Trump Cup) to the winner. Needless to say, a moment designed not only to promote traditional Japanese culture but also to offer a slimming visual contrast with our own heavyweight. Dinner that evening is at a very nice robatayaki (traditional Japanese grilled food) in Roppongi (your associate editor admits to having dined there).
Where is the real beef you ask? Well on the next day, there are some talks scheduled, along with a press conference. If there is anything of substance to discuss, it will take place there. “Tokyo will want to talk about some issues – North Korea, US-China trade talks, and perhaps the political prospects ahead for both Abe and Trump,” says Sheila Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations, author of a must-read new book, “Japan Rearmed.”
But the centerpiece of the trip will be the audience, the first for any foreign leader, with newly installed Emperor Naruhito, a moment redolent with meaning as it is the start of the new Reiwa Imperial era. The Imperial couple will host, as is traditional for state visits, a very formal banquet that evening – no off the cuff moments allowed.
The symbolic significance of this Imperial encounter cannot be underestimated. The Japanese government’s central goal in organizing this trip was to make sure that the American president was the first one to see the new Emperor – not, heaven forbid, the Chinese leader who comes next month.
On Tuesday, on Trump’s way out of town, the visual narrative will be all about the US-Japan security alliance and, not accidentally, Japanese arms purchases from the U.S. Trump will head to the strategic joint naval base at Yokosuka, on Tokyo Bay, for a visit with U.S. 7th Fleet based there and to the Japanese fleet anchored across the way. He will be taken to the Japanese helicopter carrier Kaga, a de facto flattop and the vessel likely to be equipped with the short take-off and vertical landing version of the F-35 fighter, the F-35B, made in the good old USA.
Is this all about imagery and symbols of alliance? What about the things that really require alliance management – economic and trade relations, Iran, the trade/cold war with China, North Korea?
“Of course, there are substantive questions for the bilateral relationship,” the great Japan scholar from MIT, Richard Samuels, told me. “But I don't expect the Japanese to make great efforts to call attention to them. To the contrary.
My guess is that this will be an all hands-on deck charm offensive by Abe and the GOJ-- just their latest play to Trump 's outsized vanity. If it goes well-- and it should because they have practiced this for more than two years-- we will all be able to hear a collective exhale of relief just as soon as Air Force 1 goes wheels up. (And I would guess much of that released hot air will come from the US side, too.)”
Even the White House could not manage to spin this as a substantive visit, though presumably they will try better in next days. But in the background briefing yesterday, a senior administration official admitted that trade, the big bilateral issue on the table, will not be the focus of the visit.
Even in Tokyo, where the media is more dutiful about conveying the briefings of the Prime Minister’s office, there is a healthy dose of skepticism behind the scenes. Japanese journalists know that both men have their eyes firmly fixed on domestic audiences – and on the elections coming up for both of them.
For Abe, that means the Upper House elections in late July, and possible dissolution of the entire Lower house for a ‘double election.’ For Trump, of course, it means the constant campaign.
“It’s all show,” a veteran Japanese political reporter told me. “It’s all about the upcoming election of Upper (and possibly Lower) House. This is a big wining and dining display of Omotenashi [hospitality to a guest] toward POTUS in hopes to emphasize PM Abe’s status both in Japan and in the world as the closest partner of Trump’s.
Opinion polls indicate the change of era with the new emperor’s enthronement has been working pretty well as tail wind for the sitting PM’s administration, as was deliberately planned and choreographed. The new emperor and POTUS are to be the ideal combo to highlight Abe’s irreplaceable leadership to the Japanese audience. There will be no substance in terms of real policy, or at least any unwelcomed request from the US side will be hidden until after the election. That should be the deal between these two populist leaders.”
Granting the “policy-lite” nature of this visit, as Sheila Smith puts it, what are the messages being sent and where can things go sideways? Let’s look at three key areas – trade, defense, and the sideways dangers posed by China and by Iran. As for North Korea, it may get some visuals in the form of planned meeting by Trump with abductees – a gift to Abe – but there is actually little to discuss for now on that front. Trump is back to the place Tokyo prefers when it comes to Pyongyang and all that is needed is to make a show of discussion.
Kicking the trade can down the road
Japanese and US working level negotiators met this week in Washington and USTR Bob Lighthizer will be meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi. Despite some loose talk about moving quickly to a deal in the aftermath of the wonderful weekend, perhaps ahead of or alongside the upcoming G20 meeting in Osaka in June, there is no reason to think that is actually happening.
From Tokyo’s point of view, there is every reason to drag this process out – not only because of the summer elections in Japan but also because there is no sign that Trump is ready to give Abe what he needs to make a deal. Washington, for its part, is preoccupied with China.
The crux of the matter between Japan and the US is relatively simple. The US wants an early and politically important decision by Japan to give American agricultural producers – mainly beef and pork but also wheat, dairy, wine and other agricultural products – the same reductions in tariffs and greater market access that have been given to the 11 members of the Trans Pacific Partnership and to the EU. Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and others are already rapidly increasing market share at American expense.
Ironically perhaps, the agricultural agreement was negotiated by the Obama administration as part of the TPP which Trump threw out the window on his first day in office. Now the US has the temerity to suggest that Japan has committed a hostile act by implementing that agreement with the other members of the TPP and with the EU.
The Japanese are perfectly happy to give that same access to the US – though not anything more – but only under two important conditions. First it cannot be a one-off separate deal, one that would violate WTO rules.
Second, it must be paired with US concessions on autos, namely removing permanently the threat of imposing tariffs on Japanese cars under Section 232, as well as the ongoing tariffs on steel and aluminum exports. Trump has merely postponed the auto threat and that only ensures that talks will continue. For an account of the latest round of talks, see Nikkei story below.
The Japanese mood can best be described as quietly tough. “Tokyo is not in a hurry and has no need to be so,” former senior foreign ministry official and prominent Japanese commentator Miyake Kuni told me.
“If there would be a deal before or on the side of the G20 summit, there should be a package deal address all the issues, including the U.S. abolishing tariffs newly imposed on steel and aluminum or to be imposed on autos,” says Miyake, who directs research at the Canon Institute for Global Studies.
Most analysts believe that the administration trade focus remains firmly fixed on China in any case and Japan is a back-burner issue. Hence its actual non-appearance on the Wonderful Weekend agenda. Still, there is the reality that while Trump may be physically in Tokyo, his mind will be back home.
“I do worry that Trump could go off script in Tokyo,” says Jim Schoff, who runs Japan studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The visit is so tightly scheduled that the only place that can occur is at the joint presser – armies of aides on both sides will work overtime to make sure that doesn’t happen, if they can.
Defense and security ties on parade
The Japanese government, and Abe personally, wants this visit to showcase the close security ties between the two allies. There will be lots of talk about the shared commitment to “a free and open Indo Pacific,” accompanied perhaps by over hyped talk of Japan’s readiness to play a broader regional security role. This serves also to deflect attention from the trade front.
But Tokyo’s real intent is to head off the threat from Trump to link Japan’s alleged free ride on defense to trade issues. One piece of that is to keep talking about Japanese arms purchases – something Trump loves to brag about. There is nothing new to announce but look for Tokyo to rebuy what has already been sold. The Japanese already face difficulties funding the commitments they made to date, Smith points out, “so I don’t see a lot of room for more.”
More seriously, the US and Japan are already beginning to discuss, ahead of more formal talks, the levels of Japanese contribution to the cost of American forces based in Japan – Host Nation Support as it is called in Japan. The Japanese are watching the escalating rhetoric from Trump toward South Korea demanding more money and point out they already provide the greatest levels of support of any ally. As Miyake told me, there will be “no new Japanese concessions” on this issue.
The Yokusuka naval visit serves these multiple purposes beautifully – and will offer the kind of television images that Trump revels in showing.
The icebergs-China and Iran
Beneath the placid surface of the Imperial weekend, two icebergs lurk that may show themselves slightly. The most likely one of these is China. Japanese policy makers, and particularly the business community, are growing very alarmed by the prospect of an unending and even escalating trade war with China. While they share important goals with the US regarding China as a market and a competitor, they are already feeling the impact of this trade war on their own economy.
Japan’s goods trade surplus dropped a dramatic 90 percent in April from the year previous, largely due to the US-China trade tensions. While growth remained strong in the first quarter, it was due in part to the effect of a slump in imports and showed weakening domestic consumption and business spending.
A downturn seems imminent and that has large political implications for Abe heading into summer elections and the looming issue of a scheduled increase in the consumption tax from 8 to 10 percent in the fall.
Japan has already moved to improve relations with Beijing – partly in response to efforts by the Chinese to the same end. Xi will be visiting for the G20 meeting and Abe needs to ensure that gathering will go well.
Then there is Iran. The Iranian foreign minister was in Tokyo last week and the Japanese made clear, again, that they do not support the US decision to upend the nuclear agreement with Iran. Japan has important oil and other economic ties to Iran and has never backed a confrontation with it, though the Japanese government keeps a low-key posture on this compared to European allies.
“The prospect of conflict with Iran and an end to the effort to find a trade agreement with China would have considerably negative consequences for Japan,” the CFR’s Smith told me. “The overall impact of either of these on the global economy would shake Japan’s precarious economic growth, and each on its own impacts considerably Japan’s oil and Middle East diplomacy and its relations with China.”
This visit could be an opportunity for two allies to have a strategic dialogue, particularly when it comes to China. But don’t hold your breath, says Carnegie’s Schoff:
“Abe is sympathetic to some of Washington’s concerns and even part of its strategy [toward China], but two things are preventing truly productive alliance collaboration on this. First is the poorly thought through, prepared, and coordinated trade and tech policies/penalties Trump is employing, and second is the simultaneous targeting of Japan and the EU for trade concessions under groundless ‘national security’ pretenses.
That puts Abe on the defensive with Trump and diverts the agenda. Trump only gains politically if he presses Abe hard and publicly, which would undermine all that this trip is supposed to achieve, namely a symbolic reaffirmation of the alliance in the new Reiwa Era.”
It's all about the elections, stupid
This brings us back to where we started – in the end, both leaders have domestic politics first and foremost on their minds. The visit is “very important for Abe in terms of his calculus for the upcoming election(s),” the veteran Japanese reporter told me. “For Trump? Maybe. When Abe rushed to greet with Trump right after the presidential election in 2016 and also when Abe paid a courtesy call to Mar-a-Largo in 2017, I think it helped make Trump look like a new president sufficiently respected by foreign leaders.”
That is less urgent for Trump now – and there is the competing pressure to look tough on trade. But Abe is counting on the reality that Trump too wants to look presidential at a time when his legitimacy is again under assault back home.
Does this award-winning diplomatic show win elections? “It all depends on the outcome but voters are no fools in both Japan and the U.S.,” says Japan’s Miyake. “Diplomatic success won't guarantee domestic political victories.”
This article originally appeared in The Nelson Report and was made available to Tokyo Business Today.