He may not don a kimono, but US President Donald Trump is going full-on Japan during his state visit to the Land of the Rising Sun, which starts on Saturday.
He is set to greet the newly minted emperor, will feel the floorboards shake as wrestling colossi clash and will chomp on well-done wagyu.
With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe facing elections in both houses of the Diet in July, and with Trump facing mounting challenges on the home front as talk of impeachment fills Washington drawing rooms, both administrations are keen to milk the visit for maximum good vibes.
Unsurprisingly, optics are to the fore.
The president, in the seat of honor, will present a unique “Trump trophy” to the winner of the Spring Sumo Tournament. He and First Lady Melania will enjoy robatayaki – a chargrilled combo of meat, fish and vegetables – at an intimate Tokyo restaurant with the Abes.
A fan of royalty, the US president will be the first world leader to be greeted by new Emperor Naruhito. And of course, golf is on the agenda.
However, it is a visit by the two leaders to a controversial Japanese warship that may prove the long-term legacy of Trump’s trip.
Strategy trumps economics
Contentious economic issues – notably Trump’s insistence on a bilateral trade pact, his demand for Japan to cough up more for Japan-based GIs, the tariffs already hammering Japanese metals and the threat of tariffs hanging over Japanese-made autos and auto parts, the long, lingering aftermath of Trump’s lightning withdrawal from the Japan-led multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership – will likely be aired in closed-door talks, if not relegated to the back burner.
In public, both leaders are set for photogenic spectacles, but the weightiest photo-op of the trip may not include sumo wrestlers. While Trump and Abe may be at loggerheads on economic issues, they appear united in the strategic space.
Abe was left on the sidelines during a whirlwind series of summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in which South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, China’s Xi Jinping and Trump enjoyed the limelight with the apparently charismatic young dictator.
Now, with the North Korean denuclearization process looking more like a damp squib than a Nobel-winning masterpiece of statesmanship, and with a sullen Kim easing back into missile tests, Abe’s aloofness is now starting to look like a blessing in disguise.
Should the US pivot back towards a hard line on Kim, as looks increasingly inevitable, Abe is well placed to be Trump’s coat holder. Amid this uncertain regional security environment, a joint visit to the Japanese man-of-war Kaga is likely to be the highlight of Trump’s trip.
Unfurl the ensigns
The clunky designation of the Kaga as a “helicopter destroyer” was a crafty classification that gets around the limits of Japan’s US-penned, pacifist constitution.
With Abe keen to make Japan great again, the vessel transparently represents a “Plan B” for the Abe administration. Under that, if “Plan A” – a revision of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which restricts weapons and deployments – proves politically unworkable, “Plan B” is simply to ignore it.
For what the Kaga really is, is a small aircraft carrier – a class of vessel Tokyo has not fielded since the Imperial Japanese Navy was relocated to the floor of the Pacific, courtesy of the US Navy in World War II.
Research is now underway to see if the Kaga will be able to deploy US-designed – and highly expensive – F-35 stealth fighters. The 19,500 ton Kaga, and her sister ship Izumo, with their on-deck heli squadrons, are small fry compared to America’s nuclear-powered super carriers, but if – as seems highly likely, if not a foregone conclusion – it proves feasible to use them as F-35 platforms, they will become potent power-projection instruments.
The Japanese navy – I mean the “Maritime Self Defense Force” – already fields a large, hard-hitting fleet of destroyers, including Aegis-armed vessels. The carriers, in combination with the newly operational Japan marine brigade, and a whopping 2019 defense budget of $47 billion, indicates that Tokyo is gearing up.
Thus far in his term, Trump – who appears to prefer withdrawing US troops to deploying them – has not proven to be a warrior president. Even so, a favorite Trumpian theme is to bash allies for spending little and doing less.
Moreover, as a president, he has given no indication that he cares about constitutional limits on power.
Given all this, Trump is likely, on Memorial Day weekend, to feel his heart beat a little faster when he first sets his eyes on the Kaga swinging at her moorings.
Pearl Harbor to the South China Sea
A carrier-sized irony lies at the heart of the visit. A previous carrier named Kaga was part of the Japanese task force that struck Pearl Harbor in 1941. She was later sent to the bottom at the Battle of Midway.
All this is likely to be diplomatically side-stepped in an era when the Rising Sun and Old Glory are allied, not opposed.
A Trumpian endorsement of Japanese maritime resurgence will warm the cockles of Abe’s heart and may empower him in his constitutional revision battle. It will also send a clear message to China, which, with its fast-increasing carrier fleet, weaponized South China Sea islands and guerilla-style maritime militia, is asserting its dominance in Asian waters.
That is where Japan can fill a gap. Even if Tokyo does not create a world-ranging navy, it can still project power under the rubric of “forward defense” in Asian waters. The Kaga has already steamed through the South China Sea and Japan’s geographic location and muscular posture make it unique among US allies in East Asia.
All indications are that South Korea, which is almost entirely deployed against North Korea, and Southeast Asian nations, bar Vietnam, are reluctant to confront China and unwilling to join the US Navy as it fights a war of nerves against Beijing’s forces in the South China Sea.
Due to this, US allies prosecuting freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea of late have hailed from far afield – Australia, France and the United Kingdom. Japan is the one regional exception.
The upgraded maritime force proves that Tokyo is not just willing, but is also increasingly well equipped, to be East Asia’s leading junior partner for Washington in the region – therefore, the visit to the Kaga is laden with more than symbology.
People’s Liberation Army Navy admirals, take careful note.