Thus far, the U.S. President Donald Trump has had the most contact with Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzō Abe, out of all the leaders of other nations. They communicate regularly either via the telephone, or during bilateral meetings and various international events.
In addition, high-level members of both administrations periodically gather intelligence about the “situation on the ground” by visiting each other’s nations. Hence, on the eve of Donald Trump’s four-day visit to Japan, which took place from 25 to 28 of May this year, the U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Tokyo.
There is a very simple explanation as to why the United States views its relationship with Japan (among other close allies) as a priority. The epicenter of the global geopolitical game, as well as Washington’s key interests, has been shifting from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific region for quite a long time. The latter is home to China, which, at present, is the key source of geopolitical challenges to U.S. interests. As a result, the role of regional allies has been increasing dramatically de facto and de jure.
Japan is a key ally in this region, but the nature of U.S. relations with this nation has become more complex as compared to what it was recently (and especially to its state during the Cold War). Japan is still very keen on maintaining and strengthening its military and political ties with the USA, which were established almost 70 years ago. But in recent years this nation’s role on the global stage is increasingly viewed as that of a fairly independent participant (and member of the “top league”) in the world-wide political game.
Leadership in Tokyo has its own views on how its relations with Moscow and Beijing (Washington’s key rivals) should develop. It also has its own approach to fostering ties with both South and North Korea, i.e. far less important participants of the chess game in the region of Northeast Asia.
In addition, currently Japan (along with the PRC and the EU) is at the cross hairs of a new American strategy on international trade, whose aim is to eliminate any established imbalances (which are not in U.S. trade interests). The U.S. trade imbalance with Japan reaches approximately $70 billion a year. It is far smaller than $400 billion, the amount of money Washington loses annually as a result of its bilateral trade with China. Still, $70 billion is a substantial amount and, most importantly, an intolerable one for the current U.S. President.
In other words, a number of different issues, which have piled up over time and need discussing, called for yet another meeting between the leaders of these two ally nations. An appropriate occasion for it presented itself recently: the U.S. President needed to pay his respects to his key ally on account of Emperor Naruhito’s ascent to the throne on 1 May. Donald Trump was able to congratulate the nation of Japan on this momentous event on 27 May.
It is worth highlighting that Donald Trump’s visit to Japan occurred after DPRK tested short-range ballistic missiles at the beginning of May, i.e. only 2-3 weeks prior to the trip. Right in front of the eyes of the “grown ups”, concerned with serious political issues, the North Korean “prankster” “threw yet another flat stone over the surface of the Sea of Japan, watched, with interest, as it skipped on it and then waited for the culmination”.
All in all, nothing serious happened in the end if we discount purely habitual indignation expressed by several individuals, including Shinzō Abe and John Bolton. As a result, the U.S. National Security Advisor was characterized as a ‘war monger’ and ‘defective human product’ by an unnamed North Korean foreign ministry spokesman.
For some time now, Pyongyang has not dared to issue even remotely similar in nature official statements with regards to the U.S. President, with who North Korea plans to continue a bilateral dialogue. Incidentally, it seems that Donald Trump is inclined to view North Korea’s missile launches as ‘a bit of naughtiness’ by the regional ‘enfant terrible’, which are not worthy of a serious response. So it has once again come to light that the U.S. President’s approaches to assessing certain situations on the global stage are markedly different from that of his hawkish advisor, John Bolton.
Shinzō Abe used stronger language than Donald Trump when referring to the ballistic missile launches. Nonetheless, it is worth highlighting the finer point that long before these weapon tests (at least starting in the summer of last year) the Japanese Prime Minister expressed his willingness to improve the relationship with the DPRK. At first, any progress made in this direction depended on Pyongyang’s ability to fulfill certain conditions (with the key one being the so-called “issue of abductions”), but by the end of 2018 all the preconditions were removed. It is noteworthy that even after the previously mentioned missile launches, Shinzō Abe reaffirmed his readiness to meet with the North Korean leader (without any preconditions).
However, Washington needed to endorse this meeting. It is important to take several factors into account here. The first is connected to the actual role the DPRK plays in the regional game played by the previously mentioned “grown ups”. From the author’s point of view, the fact that Pyongyang has (?) nuclear weapons is an influential factor but secondary in its importance.
North Korea is of interest in the region because its role as a not an overly intelligent player is very useful for all of the “grown ups” (possibly with the exception of Russia), but in different ways for each one of them. Incidentally, such a state of affairs is far from being an exception to the rules, but instead one of them in our (unfortunately) cruel world of politics. As another example of this we could take Russia’s troublesome neighbor, whose “nezalezhenost” (independence in Ukrainian) is based solely on its inclusion among the member states of the United Nations.
The second factor is that, as far as Japan is concerned, the previously mentioned role of North Korea has two fairly conflicting components to it. On the one hand, for decades now, Pyongyang has remained practically the key source of “external threats”, which Japan needed to protect itself from by, among other things, creating its own army. According to the second clause of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, the nation cannot maintain armed forces with war potential, but in fact, Japan’s military has already become one of the most powerful in the world.
At the same time Japan needs the DPRK, as it is a useful tool in its relationship with South Korea, which is becoming more and more complex, and the room for compromise between the two nations is increasingly more limited. We would like to remind our readers that as far back as 2013, Tokyo attempted to improve its relations with Pyongyang under the pretext of resolving the “issue of abductions.” However, Washington saw this as a “sign of betrayal” within its allied ranks. Hence, the nearly established official ties between Japan and North Korea had to be severed in order to maintain a united front in the face of pressure from “Kims’ totalitarian regime.”
This time around, we reiterate Shinzō Abe did receive “approval” from the United States to rekindle the relationship. This is a very important perk for Japan which first of all, will allow it to start participating in games orchestrated by its “Big Brother” on the Korean peninsula in the last two years. Secondly, during the upcoming negotiations with the North Korean leader, which could potentially start as early as the end of June in Osaka on the sidelines of the scheduled G20 Summit, Japan will be able to resolve some of its own issues linked with the overall situation in Northeast Asia.
It is obvious that such “perks” are not awarded for free. They are a direct result of discussions about all the issues that have piled up in the relationship between the United States and Japan. Currently, for the USA two of them have become critical. Firstly, the United States is concerned with whose side Japan is on in its escalating confrontation with China, and secondly, the US wants to know when the unfair practices in its bilateral trade ties with Japan would stop.
As for the first issue, Shinzō Abe has repeatedly (which includes the summit with Donald Trump) stressed that Japan is committed to strengthening its military and political alliance with the United States.
For instance, the fact that Panasonic, a famous Japanese company, stopped its collaboration with China’s Huawei was certainly worthy of note. The news agency, Reuters, reported about this development two days before the U.S. President was due to arrive in Japan. Panasonic sold the Chinese company (which is, currently, the main target of world-wide attacks initiated by Washington against Beijing) important components for its IT products. In 2018, Japan supplied $3.6 billion-worth of such good to the PRC. Amazon Japan (a part of Amazon’s global retail network) made an announcement about a similar decision.
China’s Global Times thus posed a very relevant question with regards to the aforementioned decisions: “Can Japan stand up to US request to contain China?”. The author of this article would like to give his own response to it “Yes, it can. But Tokyo will also take any necessary measures meant to illustrate its commitment to fulfilling obligations expected of an ally.”
Japan (just as the PRC) has chosen to comply with U.S. demands to stop purchasing oil from Iran. In addition, Shinzō Abe has agreed to take on the role of a mediator in the dispute between Washington and Tehran. However, this idea was received without much enthusiasm in Tehran itself, as Iran insists on direct negotiations with the United States.
With regards to the main issue, linked to the previously mentioned unfair trade practices, plaguing the United States-Japan relations in recent years, it appears as if no solutions to it have been found so far. And this is the main reason why there was no Joint Statement at the end of the Summit according to experts. Instead the two leaders made do with making statements to journalists.
In July, Japan’s House of Councillors election, an important event for Shinzō Abe, will take place. Therefore, there is no reason why he should aggravate Japanese farmers right before they are held by making concessions to Donald Trump and easing the entry of American agricultural products into the Japanese market. Donald Trump understands this too. Besides, he is up for re-election in a year’s time and also needs some foreign policy wins.
The key issue (for the USA and Japan), mentioned previously, indirectly made its presence known during the visit by the two leaders to the Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga. This ship will become the first in a series of similar military vessels to be re-equipped so that it can carry 8 to 10 F-35Bs, i.e. the 5th generation fighter aircraft, capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings, developed by the American company Lockheed Martin.
On the deck of the aircraft carrier, Donald Trump talked (as if it were a “done deal”) about the potential purchase of an additional batch of approximately 100 F-35s (fighter jets with various modifications) by Japan’s Ministry of Defense. The U.S. President also took the opportunity to congratulate his counterpart on this. However, the Japanese leader refrained from making any comments on this topic. We would like to remind our readers that, at present, more than 40 F-35s are already being produced by the Japanese company Mitsubishi working in collaboration with Lockheed Martin.
In fact, up until recently, there had been discussions within the Japanese Ministry of Defense about doing some research into the possibility of purchasing fighter aircraft but no decisions had been made. Besides, within Japanese expert communities (as well as US ones) complaints have been voiced about the quality and certain features of F-35s. There has been talk about the desire to “work out the kinks” in similar aircraft under development, and about the fact that it was not the best time to make such expensive purchases.
However, the author of this article suspects that as soon as the Japanese side makes any statements along those lines during concrete negotiations, its American vis-à-vis will use the following counter-argument “Not only does your Toyota take too many liberties on our markets but you don’t even let our beef into your country.” Incidentally, Donald Trump has already made similar statements. In response, Japan will have no other choice but to agree to all the features and the quality of F-35s as well as the timing of their purchase.
The next phase of increasingly complex maneuvers made by the leaders of the USA and Japan will occur in a month’s time in Osaka. And we will continue observing the latest developments.
Vladimir Terehov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region has written this article exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”