No world leader has built a closer bond with President Trump than Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. That personal connection will be on display again this weekend as Trump visits Tokyo.
During his visit, Trump will be the first world leader to meet Japan’s newly crowned emperor. He also toured a Japanese ship and presented a trophy at a sumo tournament on Sunday. These are largely symbolic gestures — and that is no accident.
Although no major agreements are expected, Japanese leaders will be hoping that the photo opportunities remind the people of both countries of the importance of the U.S.-Japanese alliance.
Meeting the emperor
The most lasting image from the trip is likely to be Trump’s introduction to Japan’s new emperor and empress. Abe promised Trump that the imperial succession would be “100 times bigger” than the Super Bowl. Trump called it Japan’s “biggest event” in more than 200 years. Trump will have the honor of being the first foreign leader to meet Emperor Naruhito, who acceded to the throne on May 1.
Some in Japan have criticized the decision to let Trump make the first visit in the Reiwa Era — which began upon Naruhito’s accession. Yet it is entirely appropriate that Japan would grant the U.S. leader this honor, as the United States is Japan’s only treaty ally. In fact, a visit by any other leader would have raised eyebrows and could have become an alliance problem.
Touring the fleet
The second major image from Trump’s visit will come on a Japanese helicopter carrier. The JS Kaga, which resembles a small aircraft carrier, is undergoing modifications to host the short takeoff and vertical landing version of the U.S.-made Joint Strike Fighter. Trump is expected to tour the ship and be photographed onboard. For Japan, this will be an opportunity to show that it is stepping up its contributions to the alliance.
The ship visit will give Abe and Trump an opportunity to showcase the growing interoperability of U.S. and Japanese forces. Both countries are deeply worried about China’s military modernization and its activities in the western Pacific. Touring the Kaga will be a reminder of the strength of the U.S.-Japanese alliance and the tight bonds between the two militaries.
Trump may also meet relatives of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. Abe has previously asked Trump to raise the abductee issue in past meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Meeting the families would help to nurture Japanese support for tough policies on Pyongyang.
The Trump Cup
The more memorable highlights may come from the less ceremonial events, however.
On Sunday, Trump awarded a custom-made cup to the winner of the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament. This is the first sumo tournament under Naruhito, and Trump sat ringside — unlike other important visitors, who typically watch from some distance away in box seats.
Trump and Abe will also play golf together, as they have in the past, but that will take a back seat to the sumo tournament.
Symbolism over substance?
The agenda for this trip is full of symbolism, but some will say it lacks substance. After all, the biggest unresolved issue on the bilateral agenda is trade, which is conspicuously absent from the program. That is by design.
Japanese leaders are hoping to keep trade off the agenda, to the extent possible. Tokyo is frustrated with Trump’s threat to use Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act to place tariffs on automobiles, ostensibly for national security reasons. At a recent campaign rally, Trump even claimed that Abe had promised $40 billion in investment in U.S. car factories. Japanese officials have disputed this claim.
Moreover, Washington’s demands for Japanese concessions in agriculture, without significant U.S. compromises in exchange, have caused anger in Tokyo. U.S. agricultural exporters face major losses in Japan because of the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which left other countries with better trade terms. Abe would ultimately like the United States to join the TPP’s successor regime, so he is not willing to give the United States advantageous trading terms without Washington rejoining the TPP.
Finally, concerns are growing about the upcoming renegotiation of the host-nation support agreement for U.S. forces in Japan. Trump has reportedly requested huge increases in Japanese support, which are likely to be politically untenable for Abe. Ultimately, Japanese leaders hope to work closely with the United States and other like-minded nations to respond to the economic and technological challenges China presents, rather than focusing on issues of U.S.-Japanese burden-sharing.
For the moment, Japan may have won a reprieve. U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer is still engaged in difficult trade negotiations with China and may not be ready to turn his attention to Japan. Therefore, leaders in Tokyo are likely to aim to defer these difficult economic discussions until after elections for the upper house in July at the earliest.
Preparing for the G-20
Perhaps the most important deliverable from the trip will be Abe’s effort to gain Trump’s support for an ambitious agenda at the upcoming Group of 20 meeting. When Abe visited Washington in April, Trump promised to join the G-20 in Osaka at the end of June, but he did not commit to the Group of 7 meeting that will be held in France in August. Abe hopes that Trump will attend both meetings and that the time has come for the leaders to agree on an agenda.
Abe will be looking to the United States to take a more active role in international organizations, including the World Trade Organization. He will be seeking to persuade Trump to use these institutions — in concert with the United States’ alliances and partnerships — to push back against worrying behavior by China and Russia.
If Abe can pull off this effort, there may indeed be some substance behind the symbolism.
Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as director of Asian studies at Georgetown University, where he holds the chair in modern and contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy.
Zack Cooper is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, and an associate with Armitage International.