Donald Trump (left) and Shinzo Abe playing golf at the Kasumigaseki Country Club on November 5, 2017. Photo: AFP/Japan's Cabinet Public Relations Office/Jiji Press

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was destined and groomed for high office from the day he was born. He has attained accomplishments that few others have managed to equal or surpass. He became Japan’s youngest postwar prime minister in 2006 at the age of 52, a distinction he holds to this date. But after being in office for barely a year during his first stint in power, he resigned for health reasons. His political career was widely seen to have finished despite his impressive political pedigree.

US President Donald Trump is welcomed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a family photo session at the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. Photo: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

His Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) went through two further leadership changes before suffering an electoral drubbing by the Democratic Party of Japan in the 2009 general election.

However, as it is widely said, “truth is stranger than fiction.” Abe managed to make a comeback from the political wilderness by storming to victory in the 2012 election. He was the first former prime minister to return to his old office since Shigeru Yoshida in 1948.

Now in his second stint in power, he is on track to become the longest-serving Japanese prime minister this November.

Abe also just successfully hosted the Group of Twenty Summit in Osaka.

While many pundits are saying all is well for him, and perhaps even Abe himself believed this to be true, I dare to say that things are not going well, and if he doesn’t change tack, things could go horribly wrong.

First of all, Abe has the unique distinction among world leaders to have had the most phone calls and golf sessions with US President Donald Trump. But despite his repeated attempts to woo Trump, Japan is the only major US ally not to win exemption from America’s tariffs on steel and aluminum. And this puts Abe in a difficult political situation, as he has nothing much to show for spending extensive political capital on cultivating relationships with the American president. Abe didn’t get the payoff he desperately yearns for.

And to compound the problem, Trump only agreed to delay and not drop his threat to impose tariffs on the Japanese automobile industry until after Japan’s July upper house election. As Trump gears up for his own 2020 re-election bid, he is expected to take a tough line on trade with Japan. He desperately needs a trade deal with Japan, and should there be further US tariffs, it will be a huge blow to the Japanese economy, and Abe will find himself in a precarious political situation.

Abe must realize that there is a limit to the effectiveness of his current strategy of dealing with the United States under the Trump administration. He must realize that Trump is the embodiment of an insular America that is increasingly reluctant to shoulder the global responsibilities that it took on after the end of World War II.

Japan has not reacted quickly enough to the changing power dynamics in the region, to its grave peril. China has become increasingly assertive and flexed its muscles in recent years, and Japan cannot count on the US to come to its defense in the event of a war. While it is true that a war between China and Japan is unthinkable at the moment, history has repeatedly shown that a spark can quickly ignite an arms race or even a war; World War I is a good example.

Abe should stop spending so much time trying to woo Trump. He should focus his efforts on improving the relationship with China, which he already started by inviting President Xi Jinping for a state visit in 2020. And when emotions have died down, Abe should take the initiative to improve the relationship with South Korea, on which he has imposed a tech export ban.

Japan is an Asian country and it must never neglect its neighborhood. It is a strategic weakness for Japan if it is unable to get along with its neighbors. While the US may have launched an all-out approach to contain China, it is not wise for Japan to join the campaign as it has done.

The US only looks out for itself and it doesn’t pay enough attention to the interests of its allies, as has been especially seen in the last two years. Japan must be cunning enough to change course and stand up for itself.

Maa Zhi Hong

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.

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