It’s tempting to wonder if Japan is having a chuckle at Donald Trump’s expense by having the pop singer Pikotaro croon for the US delegation, due to visit the country from Sunday. At 45 seconds long and containing just 35 words, Pikotaro’s irritably catchy hit Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen may be a commentary on the president’s famously short attention span.
The performance will follow a round of golf with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japanese pro Hideki Matsuyama, who is ranked fourth in the world, besides other cultural excursions. All very wise, too, given the lack of substance that’s likely to be involved in meetings between Abe and Trump.
Delaying tactics will abound as Team Abe seeks to avoid opportunities to discuss trade – Trump’s main focus. Abe will be happy to discuss security issues, including the US protection umbrella in the age of Kim Jong-un’s provocations. But his minders will maximize the J-pop galas, golf outings and other distractions to limit opportunities for Trump to press Tokyo into a bilateral trade deal it doesn’t want.
A top priority after Abe’s October 22 election win is enacting the Trans-Pacific Partnership on which Trump has reneged. Abe is rallying the remaining 10 TPP members to cement the deal. After that, he would hope to convince the next US leader to return to the fold. Abe can’t tell the thin-skinned Trump that, of course. He’ll need to finesse the point and run out the clock with activities and field trips.
It won’t be easy. With zero legislative accomplishments and Russia scandals swirling, Trump is desperate for a win. Returning to Washington with the promise of a trade pact with the third-biggest economy would be quite a coup. But Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party knows something else it can’t say publicly: there’s zero chance Tokyo would come away from direct trade talks on equitable terms. Far from it, given Trump’s ‘America First’ zero-sum worldview. Trump is sure to use America’s military defense of Tokyo as a bargaining chip.
Tokyo would be wasting valuable time and political capital if it agreed to anything Trump might table on trade. Trump, remember, has torn up myriad global deals since January. Since scrapping TPP, he has pulled out of the Paris climate-change accord, scuttled a five-year-old US-South Korea free-trade deal and decertified the multilateral Iran nuclear pact out of spite. Now, he’s threatening to kill the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement. He has hinted at ignoring World Trade Organization rules and bashed the United Nations and International Monetary Fund.
For all Trump’s courting of Xi Jinping, Beijing hasn’t managed to tame Kim’s bluster. If Trump and Abe want to get President Xi’s attention, THAAD could be just the thing
Instead, Abe could shift the conversation to educating Trump on the dangers of his “fire and fury” threats toward Pyongyang and his “little rocket man” Twitter trolling. Japan, after all, is an obvious target for Kim’s nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles – a vital US ally that is safely within firing range.
Trump’s visit seems an ideal moment for Abe to hit him up for greater access to weapons systems to fend off Pyongyang’s arsenal. Such discussions may include Japan joining South Korea in hosting Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems. Earlier this year, members of Abe’s defense team visited Guam to inspect Aegis Ashore weapons-interception systems.
Putting either system on Japanese shores would enrage China, but then that could be one of the motivations. For all Trump’s courting of Xi Jinping, Beijing hasn’t managed to tame Kim’s bluster. If Trump and Abe want to get President Xi’s attention, THAAD could be just the thing. Xi’s team went berserk over Seoul hosting the missile-defense system – clamping down on tourism, shuttering Lotte stores, canceling K-pop concerts and taking a myriad other steps to stifle commercial interests. Archrival Japan following suit would elicit an epic reaction, perhaps giving Trump the geopolitical win he desperately craves.
Anything to avoid indulging in Trump’s bilateral trade dreams. As Kyodo News points out, it’s all about keeping an “upbeat mood.” Golf carts and J-pop ditties about pineapple-apple pens could be just the ticket.