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Abe is back to talk to Trump — with a list of Japan’s concerns about North Korea

- June 6, 2018
President Trump listens as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during their meeting at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida in April. (AP)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to meet with President Trump on Thursday. Abe’s hastily arranged Washington trip suggests that Japanese leaders have deep concerns about the Trump administration’s approach to North Korea, as well as trade and U.S.-China relations.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono has insisted that he doesn’t “think there are any differences between the United States and Japan at all.” Yet Japanese officials are increasingly worried about “Japan passing” — in other words, that U.S. leaders will overlook Tokyo as they strike deals that will have an impact on Japanese interests.

Growing fears of U.S. decoupling from Japan

States often fear being abandoned by their allies. The Trump administration has accentuated these anxieties by embracing unpredictability and questioning the value of alliances.

The Japanese government hoped that the personal connection between Abe and Trump would safeguard Japanese interests. In recent weeks, however, some experts worry that these close ties are no longer sufficient.

Most concerning to them are reports suggesting that Washington might strike a deal with Pyongyang that would eliminate the missile threat to the continental United States but permit North Korea to retain missiles that could strike Japan or South Korea.

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has indicated that negotiations with North Korea seek to “address the threat to the United States” — explicitly differentiating the U.S. homeland from U.S. allies. Such comments have raised concerns that Washington might permit Pyongyang to keep some nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, as long as it gets rid of its intercontinental systems.

This adds to growing fear of “decoupling” — concern that the United States might not uphold its extended deterrence commitments to Japan and South Korea. If North Korea is permitted to retain the capability to hit Tokyo or Seoul, this could embolden North Korea and drive a wedge between the United States, Japan and South Korea.

Different U.S. and Japanese priorities on North Korea

But nuclear and missile capabilities aren’t the only area of divergence between the United States and Japan. The U.S. military presence in the region is another big concern, particularly if Trump strikes a deal to reduce U.S. forces in South Korea. Trump has repeatedly criticized the concept of extended U.S. deployments to both Japan and South Korea. Trump reportedly asked the Pentagon for plans to remove troops from South Korea, so many believe that he would happily exchange the U.S. military presence for a peace deal with North Korea.

Meanwhile, Trump has asserted that Japan will “invest very, very large sums of money into helping to make North Korea great again.” Tokyo has provided substantial financial support to Pyongyang in past North Korea negotiations — but Japan also played a key role in those negotiations.

In 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has met bilaterally with leaders from South Korea, China, Russia and the United States — but excluded Japan. The bottom line is that Japanese officials are concerned that Tokyo will be asked to help pay for a deal that undermines Japan’s own interests.

And Trump and Abe have different domestic priorities regarding North Korea. For Trump, a successful summit would deliver his first major foreign policy victory. Abe could also use a political win to solidify his position within the Liberal Democratic Party ahead of the party’s internal elections in September.

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For Abe, getting Kim to agree to a deal on Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea is a top priority. In their April 18 meeting in Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Abe persuaded Trump to urge “North Korea to promptly resolve its abductions of Japanese citizens,” but it remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will press this issue with Kim.

What about China — and trade?

Many Japanese analysts remain convinced that negotiations with North Korea are simply an effort to divide the United States, South Korea and Japan while extracting aid and concessions. Reinforcing these concerns, one U.S. official recently commented of the North Koreans: “Since the China visit, they’ve moved pretty dramatically, shifted in the last several weeks to North Korea’s old position.” Some in Tokyo believe that leaders in Beijing are manipulating Pyongyang in the hope of weakening U.S. alliances and distracting U.S. leaders.

Here is Japan’s greatest fear — that it could find itself isolated and left to face China on its own. Many Japanese were pleased when the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy suggested a harder U.S. line against China. But the lengthy negotiations with North Korea continue to distract the United States from the more serious long-term challenge presented by China’s rise.

On trade, the president remains critical of Japan. An April Trump tweet noted that Japan “has hit us hard on trade for years!” The administration has applied steel and aluminum tariffs to Japan and threatened tariffs on automobiles, while pressing Japan to enter bilateral trade negotiations.

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Meanwhile, Trump continues to talk about striking deals with Beijing, including cutting the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE some slack despite its sanctions violations. These transactional moves leave Tokyo questioning whether Trump is likely to safeguard Japan’s long-term economic interests.

When Abe visited Washington in 2013, he proudly announced, as the journal Foreign Affairs put it, that “Japan Is Back.” In 2018, Abe has been such a frequent visitor to Washington that some are asking, “Again?” Abe’s visits provide opportunities to bridge the differences between the U.S. and Japanese positions, but the underlying tensions are likely to remain.

Zack Cooper is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the editor, with Michael Green, of “Strategic Japan” (2014) and “Postwar Japan” (2017).