Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan
The swift ratification of a free trade deal with the US is the latest move by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to firm up his relationship with US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

Phone calls between world leaders rarely get more awkward than the one Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had with US President Donald Trump on February 20. It came a few days after Trump humiliated a Japanese leader who’d spent vast political capital befriending the US president.

Trump told reporters that Abe nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Turns out, Abe did so at the White House’s behest following Trump’s June summit with Kim Jong Un. Abe immediately faced a grilling from angry lawmakers, who asked: “Seriously?!?!?”

This week, Abe may be embarrassed anew as his Trump sycophancy goes further awry in Hanoi.

Sorry, Shinzo

Japan’s prime minister won’t be on hand Wednesday when Trump and the North Korean dictator begin their second date. Trump did not include Abe in the proceedings. While Hanoi is a bilateral affair, Trump has totally disregarded Abe, who has made no secret of his desire to be at the summit with Kim.

This means Tokyo’s two biggest priorities are way out in left field: One is the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in recent decades, the other is Kim’s short-range missile capabilities.

Team Abe, of course, harbors the same overarching worry about Trump’s odd bromance with Kim as the rest of humankind. While Trump has trumpeted Kim’s ongoing missile and nuclear test moratorium – something Tokyo is most certainly grateful for – the worry is that this will turn into an all carrots, no sticks affair that front-loads goodies for Kim with little reciprocity.

Trump’s embattled administration, meantime, is so desperate for a win on the global stage – not to mention a Nobel – that there’s no telling what he might give away.

South Korea’s Moon Jae-in also has every reason to worry Trump might acquiesce to a major troop reduction on the peninsula to make a deal. What’s to stop an ahistorical leader fearing impeachment and surrounded by his own entourage of sycophants in Hanoi?

Abe’s bet on Trump in November 2016 is backfiring spectacularly on his Liberal Democratic Party. The hope was to preserve the US-Japan military relationship and spare Japan from Trump’s assault on Asian supply chains.

The two-plus years since have been awash in disappointment. Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and refused to give Tokyo a pass on tariffs. He’s threatened taxes on Japanese autos and prodded Abe to pay more for US troops serving in Japan – Seoul recently agreed to do just that.

Abe also had some explaining to do last June when Trump declined to press Kim on abductees, an issue vital to his fellow nationalists. Before the Singapore summit, Abe asked Trump to press Kim on returning Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Of the estimated 17 victims, only five are accounted for.

It will be harder for Abe to accept another indignity should Trump avoid the topic. This, however, will likely be the case, considering Trump has thus far given Kim a complete pass on human rights.

That goes, too, for the short-range-missile portfolio. The “America First” president is linearly focused on intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach US shores. That, as Abe has said, “has no meaning for Japan.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meantime, talks only of the need to decrease “the risk to the American people.”

Such comments aren’t likely to allay Tokyo’s insecurity this week. The lack of input Team Trump sought from Tokyo compounds the sense of indifference communicated by Trump’s earlier affronts.

That is less so for Moon. Prior to this week’s Kim summit, Trump’s people have been far more communicative with Moon’s than Abe’s, not to mention with Kim’s people, too. Even so, Trump is not approaching his Hanoi meet as a world leader drawing strength from allies.

Japan overlooked

No other leader in the free world has been more supportive of Trump than Abe. And few leaders have more to gain from talks with Pyongyang than Abe. With Japan’s economy flagging and scandals hitting his party’s support rates, progress on North Korean relations could reinvigorate Abe’s government.

Yet Trump refuses to throw Abe the smallest of bones. Trump could repay Abe’s loyalty by inviting him to Hanoi too, at the very least, stage a brief handshake and exchange with Kim. However, such magnanimousness is beyond Trump, a reality-television-star-turned politician.

It’s no wonder why Trump, as Jeff Kingston, head of Asian studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus puts it, is “the least popular US president ever in Japan.”

That complicates Abe’s third term as leader. As his Abenomics reform program sputters, Abe also has very little to show for his diplomatic efforts since December 2012. Abe, for example, has met with Russia’s Vladimir Putin 25 times to negotiate the return of a disputed island chain dating back to World War II. He has zero to show for it.

It’s a bad look for Abe, a proud nationalist, to be competing with Trump for Putin’s affections, and Abe risks looking foolish as Putin goes through the motions and effectively ignores Tokyo’s interests. Why bother with a 26th meeting?

Arguably, China’s Xi Jinping has navigated Trump’s bluster with greater skill than Abe. Trump respects strength. Abe’s sprint to Trump Tower nine days after Trump’s shock election win in 2016 smacked of desperation. And Trump has treated Abe accordingly at every turn – all take, zero give.

Xi’s strategy has been one of attrition, patience and quiet confidence. Beijing is betting that Americans will return to electing pro-trade pragmatists starting with next year’s election. All China needs to do is placate Trump with concessions here and there and wait out the clock.

The strategy is bearing fruit. Trump’s negotiators just delayed the March 1 deadline for new tariffs, a sign they want to end the trade war before it crashes the stock market. The odds favor a deal that affords Trump bragging rights, but alters Sino-US trade mechanics little in the long run. Just as Xi planned.

Abe doesn’t have that luxury. Trump will pivot to Japan soon enough for a bilateral shakedown. Expect Trump to blackmail his pal with threats of 25% levies on autos and moves to upend national-security arrangements.

Trump’s Nobel request has dented Abe’s street cred with conservatives and left many of Japan’s 127 million people face-palming in unison. The hits are likely to keep coming as Trump fetes Kim right in Abe’s backyard, with Tokyo looking on warily but powerless.

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