Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been bypassed by recent developments on the Korean peninsula, but appears eager to play a role in talks with North Korea in coming weeks. Photo: Reuters/ Kim Kyung-Hoon

Japan is becoming an increasingly irrelevant player in the fast-moving diplomatic drama unfolding across Northeast Asia – assuming that one can even legitimately use the word “player” to describe Japan.

Tokyo has been blindsided several times since North Korea began its “charm offensive” during the Winter Olympics in February, with Seoul playing a key role in laying the groundwork for US President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in May.

Nor did Japan get any kind of heads-up for Kim’s surprise visit to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last week. Questioned by reporters, Foreign Minister Taro Kono could only offer the lame excuse that the government was “collecting information” with the hope that Beijing would be forthcoming on the visit.

Add to this the major trade snubs suffered by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the hands of the US president, who Abe has gone out of his way to be buddies with, and all this suggests that Japanese are currently suffering from an acute case of “Japan Passing.”

That expression emerged in 1998 when former president Bill Clinton made a nine-country trip to Asia that pointedly did not include Japan. It came at a time when Washington – and other world capitals – were becoming more interested in fast-growing China, while Japan, then in the economic doldrums, was seen as becoming less and less of a player on the world scene.

In his five years in office, Abe has visited more than 70 countries, many of them twice. On each of these trips he has had the same message: “Japan is back.”

Shinzo loves Donald

But nowhere has he been more keen to secure sound relations than with Washington. Abe famously flew to New York to meet the president-elect even before his inauguration. Since that time, he has courted the US president with golf games and expensive gifts.

Abe was a hawk among hawks on the North Korea question. He was Trump’s biggest cheerleader for the US’  “maximum pressure” strategy, and Japan’s leaders thought they were on the same wave-length as Trump.

North Korea’s strategic weapons are a far greater concern to Japan. Kim’s ability to rain nuclear-tipped intermediate-range missiles on Japanese territory are a real threat, whereas the North’s not-quite-complete ICBM programs are only a theoretical threat to the US mainland (at least, until they successfully test re-entry vehicles and targeting systems).

Tokyo and Washington appeared strategically aligned. Although Trump pulled the US out of Abe’s most prized diplomatic-trade initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the photo opportunities were good and the chemistry apparently positive. Abe had good reason to believe that he might well have been Trump’s favorite foreign leader.

But much of that cultivating seems to have gone for naught in the present circumstances in Northeast Asia.

Abe bypassed, overlooked and snubbed

Trump recently dealt Japan yet another blow when he announced that he was slapping 25% tariffs on steel and 10% charge on aluminum exports to the United States. He also said he plans to impose sanctions worth $50 billion on China.

Of course, Tokyo had been anticipating something like this happening, given the TPP experience and Trump’s views on protectionism and trade. Nevertheless, Tokyo was shocked when Trump extended exemptions to countries like Argentina, Brazil, Australia, the European Union, South Korea, Canada and Mexico – but not Japan.

Being so overlooked by Trump – and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has slammed Abe over “comfort women”, and who, while politicking energetically with Pyongyang and arranging a Kim-Trump summit, has seen no reason to invite Japan to the table – comes at a difficult time for Abe politically. The allegation of cronyism in a school funding scandal recently resurfaced with a vengeance when it was reported that the Abe government had doctored pertinent documents.

In the past, Abe has been able to fend off political criticism by presenting himself as a bulwark against external threats. But his approval ratings are plunging, as he tries to adapt to a rapidly changing set of circumstances. These have called into question whether he can win a third term this September.

Abe seeks a role

Abe has desperately sought ways to get back in the game. Shortly after Trump announced – apparently catching Tokyo off-guard – that he would meet personally with North Korea’s Kim, Abe said he would fly to Washington in April to meet with Trump.

Besides North Korea, Abe may want to caution Trump against pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. He could logically argue that reneging on a deal with Iran could undermine any future negotiations with Pyongyang.

Jumping on the bandwagon, Abe has also suggested that he could try to meet with Kim before the main meeting with Trump. He has said he would press the North to come up with a final account of Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s.

This is a particular obsession with the Japanese, although other countries see it as a parochial distraction from the main goal of eliminating North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Tokyo also announced that it would cover the (modest) costs of sending  inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to help inspect nuclear sites – should North Korea agree to permit their return, which some see as one of the bargaining chips Kim will lay on the table in his summits with Moon, in April, and Trump in May.

The IAEA has not had direct access to North Korean nuclear facilities since 2009 when Pyongyang expelled international inspectors and abrogated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty after it was accused of cheating on disclosures about its nuclear program.

This tactic offers Japan one way to remain relevant in the international responses to North Korea, albeit in a very small way. However, whether Kim would agree to meet Abe – who is sure to raise the embarrassing issue of abductees – is not known at this time. What is clear is Kim has met Xi, will meet Moon on April 27, and will most probably meet Trump sometime in May.

Is Japan “passing?” That is open to question. But in the high-stakes North Korea diplomatic game being played across Northeast Asia and beyond, Japan has certainly been bypassed.

Shigeo Iizuka, center, leader of the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea, accompanied by Sakie Yokota, left, hands a resolution to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the PM’s Office in Tokyo on March 30, 2018. Iizuka’s sister and Yokota’s daughter were kidnapped. Photo: AFP/Yomiuri Shimbun.

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