Shinzo Abe was the first international leader to meet with President-elect Donald Trump in a last-minute rendezvous that was reportedly set up when Japan’s leader rang to congratulate him, and casually mentioned that he would be passing through New York. The two met at Trump Tower, where Trump’s daughter Ivanka was also in attendance with her husband Jared Kushner – it’s not clear why.
During Trump’s presidential campaign, bilateral ties between America and Japan were thrown into uncertainty. Trump was outspoken in his criticism of Japan in several key areas. Despite all of this, Abe emerged saying that it was a “candid meeting with a warm atmosphere”.
In the spirit of keeping things vague, news organizations were not invited to the meeting. Political commentators could only speculate that it was held in part to quell worries about the future of the US-Japanese alliance, and a move by Abe to gain early favor with the new President.
Although the meeting was only held in an “unofficial” capacity, the two had a lot to discuss; notably trade agreements, national security, and whether or not Trump can use chopsticks. Just kidding on that last one.
So, what might they have talked about?
The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP)
The greatest elephant in the room would have been the TPP, the 12 nation free-trade pact between Japan, the US and other Pacific rim countries meant, in part, to combat China’s economic dominance in Asia.
While Abe has been a staunch supporter of the TPP since its inception, Trump is against the deal, instead advocating a protectionist economic policy that will “negotiate fair bilateral trade deals that bring jobs and industry onto American shores”.
Trump has vowed to withdraw from the TPP within the first 100 days of his presidency; a move that could do damage to the Abe administration which has invested significant political capital in promoting the deal. Abe has even prophesied that without the support of America, the TPP would be completely “meaningless”.
China, North Korea and threats to Japan
For Japan, China is not only an economic threat but also a military one, with the two countries laying claim to several of the same islands. For Trump, China is an economic powerhouse, stealing US jobs and slowly encroaching on America’s global economic hegemony.
The topic of security is a likely candidate for what was up for discussion, as much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric was geared towards the global order within Asia. He repeatedly accused both China and North Korea of threatening the tentative balance within the region. Trump also sent shockwaves when he suggested that he would be willing to not only retract the American nuclear umbrella protecting Japan but also to provide the country with its own nuclear capabilities, thereby going against the current Japanese constitution.
As mentioned in my previous article, the meeting could be used as a precursor for future discussions surrounding changes to the Japanese constitution. Abe, who has long since sought to remove the Article 9 restrictions, may want to enlist Trump’s support to dismantle the obstacles.
The Japanese-American Alliance
The alliance between America and Japan appeared under threat during the campaign; Abe would likely want to be reassured. Trump was dismissive of bilateral ties between the two nations, provocatively exclaiming that he would be “…prepared to walk” away from them.
With this in mind, it seems Abe’s comments following the meeting were aimed to help ease rising anxiety in Tokyo, at a time when Chinese and North Korean rhetoric, threats and actions are on the rise, and Japan is forced to look to America for its continued support.
What does it all mean?
Following the meeting, Abe asserted that the alliance would continue to prosper and he was “[…] confident that […] Trump is a trustworthy leader”, and a spokesman said that the administration would continue to “put its top priority on the Japan-U.S. Alliance.”
Although the Abe administration has been quick to calm fears by asserting that, “…we [the Abe administration] don’t have to take each word Mr. Trump says publicly literally”, a sentiment echoed by Abe when he declared the meeting a success, uncertainty still hangs in the air.
I think the meeting was a clear show of a US and Japan that “still stand side by side” and a gesture of a new beginning for negotiations.
If the rumors are true, Trump may even intend to recruit Abe as his “man in Asia”, a move that would not only aim to counter growing Chinese influence but would also set the geopolitical order of the rest of the region for the remainder of his presidency.
It is clear that Trump will leave his mark on Asia. What that looks like? Only time will tell.