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Trump’s trip to Japan reveals some mixed signals

The U.S. and Japan announced a joint moon mission — but seemed to postpone pressing trade and security issues.

- May 29, 2019

On Tuesday, President Trump returned to Washington after a four-day visit to Japan. His trip came at the dawn of a new era in the country — after the first abdication of a Japanese emperor since 1817 and the ascension of Emperor Naruhito to the throne.

By inviting Trump to be the first foreign leader to meet with the new emperor, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe showcased how his country prioritizes its relationship with the United States — and with Trump specifically, who boasted last week about being “the guest of honor at the biggest event that they’ve had in over 200 years.”

Abe’s “charm offensive” was in full swing. Aside from Trump’s meeting with Emperor Naruhito and political photo ops, the Japanese government put together an impressive schedule designed to appeal to the president’s tastes and cultivate personal relations between the two leaders, including ringside seats at a sumo tournament, golf, double cheeseburgers made with American beef and dinner at a traditional charcoal grill restaurant.

Trump goes to Tokyo. There will be pomp and photo ops.

The key takeaways? Predictably, the visit was more about ceremony than about policy substance, but it highlighted important dimensions of current U.S.-Japan relations.

1. U.S.-Japan trade talks have been temporarily delayed

While the media attention has focused on U.S.-China trade, U.S.-Japan bilateral trade talks are also ongoing. Abe and Trump did not discuss substantive details of a U.S.-Japan pact, but they did address timing. Both agreed to “accelerate” the trade talks in line with the U.S. desire to conclude an agreement as soon as possible — but Trump also publicly commented that the deal would wait until after July. This delay is significant because it allows Abe to steer clear of controversial concessions to the United States until after he has finished navigating a potential double election.

Trump has incentive to help Abe politically, since ensuring stable government seems likely to help smooth the negotiation process. And if Japan offers enough of the right kind of concessions in politicized sectors such as agriculture and automobiles, this could also help Trump to please his own domestic audiences.

When the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement in 2017, it forfeited important Japanese trade concessions. Washington wants those concessions and more in the upcoming bilateral talks, as Trump made clear with frequent comments about the trade imbalance during his visit.

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Aside from the potential concessions, talks with Japan will set expectations for negotiations with other U.S. trade partners. The Trump administration argues that imports of automobiles and auto parts harm U.S. national security because they hurt domestic producers and their ability to invest in new technologies. Japan and the European Union have six months to negotiate new deals with the United States before Washington imposes tariffs on these imports.

Although Abe seemed to catch a break with the delay, the reprieve is likely to be brief. Trump implied that a deal could be announced as early as August, although Japan will probably attempt to delay negotiations further. Abe’s government might also try to obtain better terms by offering to redress the trade imbalance through other means, such as additional defense procurement or investment in the United States by Japanese companies.

2. Security cooperation is generally strong — and expanding to new frontiers

Despite Trump’s well-known criticisms of alliances and burdensharing, this visit was devoted to reaffirming the commitment of the United States and Japan to their long-standing security relationship. Trump visited the U.S. naval base at Yokosuka and gave a speech aboard the USS Wasp emphasizing American military might. He also visited the JS Kaga, an Izumo-class helicopter carrier that Tokyo views as a symbol of its increasing contributions to the alliance and to regional security.

In addition, the two leaders announced plans for a U.S.-Japanese manned moon mission, a new area of bilateral cooperation that directly responds to recent Chinese actions. In January, China became the first country to land on the far side of the moon, and its space exploration ambitions have reinvigorated U.S. interest in returning to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. Trump directly linked the joint mission to security concerns, saying, “From a military standpoint, there is nothing more important right now than space.”

3. But the allies continue to suffer from mixed signals

The two leaders’ symbolic displays of the strengths of the U.S.-Japan relationship danced around latent tensions in the security arena — as illustrated by their divergent treatments of the North Korean issue. For Japan, Trump’s visit was an opportunity to coordinate policy and keep Tokyo’s views in the picture — and minimize chances that Japan will be surprised by future developments in U.S. talks with North Korea.

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Japan scored at least one win. Trump met with the families of Japanese abductees on Monday, reaffirming U.S. support for securing the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. This was a political boon for Abe, who has been an advocate for the abductees’ return since early in his career.

However, the visit also exposed worrying gaps in the allies’ perspectives. Trump minimized concerns about North Korea’s recent short-range missile tests, claiming that he was personally not bothered by them. But the missiles that Trump dismissed as “small weapons” pose a serious threat to Japan due to its proximity to the Korean Peninsula. Abe hedged. He expressed “great regret” over the tests and insisted that they violated U.N. policy, yet he also maintained that Japan and the United States are “perfectly aligned” with regard to sanctions.

What happens now?

Abe and Trump pulled off a showy demonstration of the bonds between their two countries. In addition to the personal rapport between the two leaders, the U.S. and Japan share many common interests — as well as common adversaries. However, Trump’s trip also revealed persistent and troubling areas of divergence on issues such as trade and North Korea.

The United States and Japan will eventually have to tackle these disagreements. But with this visit, that day of reckoning seems to have been postponed a while longer.

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Kristi Govella is an assistant professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, an adjunct fellow at the East-West Center and a National Asia Research Program fellow.