A Japanese Hail Mary: Abe at Mar-a-Lago

Jason Poirier Lavoie Americas, Analysis, Asia, Canadian Policy, Economics

4 minute read

Currently underway, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, Florida for a two-day U.S.-Japan Summit. This meeting will be occurring in the context of Japan’s resumption of economic dialogue with China, its first ministerial visit to South Korea in some time, and failed attempts at a bilateral dialogue with North Korea. In light of these events, what does Abe stand to gain and why?

As it seems, there is intense pressure for him walk away with some form of victory in hand. With breakthroughs in relations between North Korea and several other powers (South Korea, United States and China), Japan finds itself excluded from the negotiations concerning its future security. Up until now, it saw fit to adopt the American hard line against North Korea and the threat its missile program posed to the island. With the latest turn of events, Japan finds itself leaning on other countries to leverage its policy priorities, and this without any guarantees.

The urgency for Shinzo Abe is twofold. Firstly, he needs to ensure Japan’s national interests are included in the various bilateral discussions with North Korea. Secondly, he needs to return to Japan with something to tide over public opinion, and Trump knows this.

With approvals ratings at precipitous lows at home, Abe is under pressure to deliver. His approval rate has been hit by a series of domestic scandals and protests relating to special approval for a university project in which he allegedly intervened. This third scandal follows suit to the sale of government land to nationalist school Mortimo Gauken at steep discounts and alleged falsification of military logs related to Iraq.

A similar dip occurred in July 2015 following successful North Korean ICBM tests. But this last crisis emerged as more of an opportunity for Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as they were able to sweep a super-majority during a snap election in October 2017. The snap election, called for the purposes of riding out the low approval rates to come, cleared the way for Shinzo Abe to pursue his ambitious reform agenda.

Despite this, the North Korea issue and Japan’s inability to secure concessions is causing political strain. Every other nation involved has made headway in terms of relations with North Korea. In a recent surprise to the international community, China hosted Kim Jong Un for his first foreign state visit outside of North Korea. CIA director Mike Pompeo conducted a low-profile visit to the North Korean leader ahead of Trump’s own summit with Kim. Even South Korea is preparing to propose an official peace treaty following decades of an uneasy truce.

With all of these strategic changes, Japan has little to show for it. North Korea has made it clear that it will not revisit the matter of Japanese kidnappings and the disarmament of its missile program is also not on the table. With these matter at the core of Japan’s interests and no other nation sharing these priorities, the country finds itself looking at the negotiations from the outside.

Where trade is concerned, and the area Japan is most likely to score gains, the United States has shifted towards a preference for bilateral agreements and Trump has taken a hardline on this front. With tough trade tariffs looming over the horizon, Abe will be hard pressed in trying to bring the U.S. back into the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  During this summit, Japan will be negotiating from a position of weakness. Abe’s domestic fortunes leave little room for him to return empty-handed or to take a long stance. In the short term, whatever concessions will be made, Trump will tout it as a win, and Abe will be able to assuage his audience.

The greater goal of being included at the table over North Korea will prove an even more challenging political ambition. Japan has not succeeded in engaging North Korea with its overtures. Abe is effectively left out of the various talks that North Korea is having with its allies. With each country aiming to achieve their own limited gains with the country, Japan will need to leverage its relations to ensure that the missile threat and kidnapping are addressed.