Japan and the US, an unbreakable alliance? Reuters/Toru Hanai
Japan and the US, an unbreakable alliance? Reuters/Toru Hanai

In meeting with Donald Trump at the White House today (February 10) and at his Mar-a-Lago in Florida tomorrow, Shinzo Abe becomes the first world leader to meet the billionaire mogul twice since his stunning election victory last November. He is also the first foreign leader to visit — and play golf with America’s new president at — his private resort.

Can the Japanese Prime Minister take such official and personal encounters with the businessman-turned-president to steady the United States’ ties with Japan and the Asia-Pacific region, which are in jeopardy following Trump’s election?

Abe was the only world leader to meet Mr. Trump before his inauguration, and is now the second, after British Prime Minister, to do so since he took office.

Great Britain and Japan are two of America’s staunchest allies — with the former being America’s strongest partner in Europe while the latter is Washington’s closest friend in Asia.

In going to America two weeks ago, Theresa May chose to shrug off concerns in the UK and elsewhere about Trump’s populist rhetoric and nationalist policies to rekindle her country’s “special relationship” with the US. Her cozy posture paid some significant dividends. Among key commitments and agreements reached, Trump pledged to do a “quick” and “fair” trade deal with post-Brexit Britain.

She also won over Mr. Trump in some key international issues, notably the US’s commitment to NATO. On his campaign trail, the Republican candidate called the transatlantic organization “obsolete”. His criticism made the UK and many other European countries very nervous. However, at their joint press conference on January 27, the British Prime Minister informed that the new American president was “100% behind” the transatlantic alliance. Since then, Trump has significantly softened his NATO posture, recently confirming that he “strongly supported” the bloc.

Abe has adopted a similar approach.

Unlike many other countries, including some of America’s allies, Japan has avoided comments on Trump’s divisive decisions, such as his travel ban.

Japan was one of the countries Trump repeatedly lashed out at on his campaign trail. A reason behind his criticism is America’s huge trade deficit with Japan. Japan is the third biggest (about US$69 billion) — after China (US$367 billion) and Germany (US$75 billion).

Tokyo has now been seemingly responsive to Trump’s apprehensions over America’s imbalanced economic relations with Japan. It is reported that before his trip Abe called for officials to gather “tweetable” figures on Japanese companies’ investment plans that he can then present to the Twitter president when they meet on Friday. These include a proposed US$450 billion in infrastructure investments that would create up to 700,000 jobs in the US.

Such proposals and figures must be music to Trump’s ears because one of his central campaign pledges is to create jobs for American workers.

During the campaign, Trump also complained that the US-Japan security arrangement was one-sided, with Tokyo insufficiently sharing the cost of the US security umbrella.

However, his posture has shifted significantly. In a phone call with Abe on January 28, Trump “affirmed the ironclad U.S. commitment to ensuring the security of Japan.” Early this month his Defense Secretary James Mattis stated the US-Japan “alliance is unshakable.”

Overall, despite his inflammatory campaign rhetoric, Trump has now been relatively positive about US-Japan ties. This may be thanks to a close bond between the two leaders. In fact, in terms of personality, style and outlook, Abe and Trump have notable similarities. They are both “strongman” and nationalist leaders, who prefer a highly personalized approach to issues. Like Trump, Abe is cozy with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, while wary of China.

These connections facilitate their personal rapport and official ties. That Abe was invited to the White House and to Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, where they will play a round of golf on Saturday, at this stage of his presidency is — as Sean Spicer, White House spokesman, said on February 7 — a testament to both the importance the US places on the US-Japan relationship and the strength of military and economic ties between the two countries.

With his offensive charm and closer bonds with Trump, Abe may finally dissuade his concerns over America’s economic and security ties with Japan, enabling Tokyo to strengthen its relationship with Washington, which has been greatly strained in recent months.

As the only Asian leader to meet Donald Trump in person, not only once but twice, since his election, Abe can also seek some clarifications — and even gain influence — over Trump’s overall policy toward Asia.

Like its relations with Japan, America’s ties with every other regional country, regional institutions, such as ASEAN, ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, have been in doubt — and even in danger — following Trump’s election victory. It remains very unclear what his Asia policy will be — both in content and shape.

Central to this is how he will deal with China. During the presidential campaign and the transition period, Trump confronted Beijing over a range of key issues — criticizing Beijing’s trade practices, monetary policies, slamming its military buildup in the South China Sea and threatening to upend America’s decades-long ‘One China’ policy.

Since his inauguration, America’s 45th president has spoken, either by phone or in person, with about 20 heads of state or government, including Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Still, as of February 9, Trump has not yet talked with Xi Jinping, though he recently sent a letter to the Chinese leader.

There is a real concern that Trump, whose cabinet is filled with several outspoken China hawks, will adopt an aggressive posture vis-à-vis Beijing that may lead to a trade war or even a military conflict. A trade war — or worse still, a military collision — between the world’s two superpowers will badly hurt not only the US and China but also the region and even the world.

In March 2016, Steve Bannon, who is now Donald Trump’s chief strategist, predicted the two countries would go to war “in five to 10 years.”

Another concern is that, for all his rants at China, Trump may make a deal with Beijing behind the backs of Japan and America’s other regional allies and partners.

The author of The Art of the Deal often prides himself on being a dealmaker. He prefers a transactional approach to international relations. Moreover, with his “America first” doctrine, the billionaire mogul’s overriding concern is not about America’s global role, image and alliances but its short-term interests and American workers’ jobs. This is evidenced by the fact that countries he has lashed out at most are the countries with which America runs the biggest deficits, including Germany and Mexico.

It is unclear what his real motives were when he broke the US’s long-standing diplomatic protocol to take a phone call from Taiwan’s president and publicly criticized China’s South China Sea posture. Did he choose to do so because he genuinely wanted to support Taiwan and to push back against China’s adventurism in the South China Sea? Or did he just use the Taiwan and South China Sea issues as bargaining chips to gain concessions from Beijing on trade?

Judging by his comment that the US should not “be bound by a One China policy” unless China makes “a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade,” it is not completely ruled out that Trump may make such a deal with Beijing. And should he do so, Japan and other American allies and partners in the region, would greatly suffer economically and strategically.

Thus, it is vital for Abe to use his privileged meetings with Trump and his advisors to discourage them from taking these two extreme positions.

Instead, he should persuade the Trump administration to actively engage with the region — bilaterally and multilaterally, diplomatically economically and strategically. He should also let his host know that America’s regional partners and allies look to it not just for security, trade and investment. They also want Washington to play a key role in shaping and leading a rules-based economic and security order. Most importantly, the Trump administration should be convinced that such a commitment and approach is vital to the prosperity and security of not only the region but also of America in the long-term.

And if Abe, with his charm offensive and strong rapport with Trump, can influence the new president, convincing him to head toward that direction, his trip will be a turning point in the Trump administration’s Asia policy.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.