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Abe-Trump talks topped by trade and Korea

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump starts on Saturday a multi-day trip to Japan with a packed agenda, including preparations for next month's G-20. Yet the primary reason for the visit, from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's viewpoint, is the opportunity to deepen his personal bond with the mercurial president and fortify US-Japan ties in the face of significant international uncertainty, including the rise of China.

Top of the agenda is not just the unravelling US-North Korean talks. It is also the potential for finalising a US-Japan trade deal which Mr Trump and director of the US National Economic Council Larry Kudlow, remarkably, have said could be finalised by the end of the month, an assessment that seems very optimistic.

The fact that Mr Trump is visiting Japan so soon before next month's G-20, and after the two leaders met only last month in the United States, underlines the relative warmth of Washington-Tokyo relations right now. Mr Abe, in particular, has invested massive personal political capital in the relationship - even reportedly nominating the US president for the Nobel Peace Prize.

To be sure, Mr Abe's charm offensive has paid some dividends. This includes the energy that is now being put into the US-Japan free trade deal with Mr Kudlow scheduled to be in Tokyo on Friday to meet Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi to try to accelerate the negotiations.

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Yet, Japan has also been caught by surprise on several fronts by Mr Trump during his presidency. This includes North Korea with Tokyo concerned, especially last year, about the speed with which the US president appeared to be pushing forward talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

While Mr Abe asserted that Mr Trump showed "courage" in doing so, including the summit in Singapore last year, the prime minister has been weary about where the talks could land. There has been particular anxiety about whether Tokyo's key interests would be pressed by the president in the talks, including the issue of Japanese nationals abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mr Abe has also been worried that Mr Trump may look to a do a deal with Mr Kim, without taking its broader security interests into account. This included Pyongyang potentially agreeing to give up missiles capable of reaching the United States, without eliminating short- and medium-range missiles that threaten Japan and neighbouring countries.

Tensions between the two sides on this issue most recently surfaced this month when the longtime security allies appeared to disagree over Pyongyang's recent launches of short-range ballistic missiles. Tokyo criticised the move as a violation of UN resolutions, while Mr Trump said that he did not believe these were a "breach of trust" by Mr Kim.

On the economic front, Mr Abe is very pleased with the energy that is being put into the US-Japan talks, even though he and other Japanese officials are sceptical that the negotiations can be concluded this month. In part, this is because the Washington-Tokyo negotiations come in the context of previous political tensions over the economic relationship with bilateral trade topping US$300 billion last year, and Japanese firms having invested nearly US$500 billion in the US market.

Over the last two-and-a-half years, Mr Abe has been especially concerned to mitigate tensions in the bilateral economic relationship, given Mr Trump's often negative comments on the 2016 US election trail about Japan. Then-candidate Trump frequently criticised Tokyo for unfair trade practices involving car imports and exports; accused it of using monetary policy to devalue its currency to boost exporters; and asserted that the bilateral security relationship had become too one-side with Japan needed to undertake more financial burden-sharing.

Securing close ties with Washington is important for Mr Abe who is more than a half decade into his second stint as prime minister and on track to become the longest serving premier in post-war Japanese history. One of the key reasons that Mr Abe is keen to be so close to Mr Trump is Japanese concerns about a rising China in the Asia-Pacific.

CONTINUING TENSIONS

The prime minister has particular worries about China's growing influence in the context of the uncertainties that Mr Trump's presidency has brought, including US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The trade and investment deal originally intended to lock Washington into deeper economic partnerships with traditional US allies in the region.

Moreover, there are also continuing tensions in the South China Sea. In this theatre, it is not just Japan and the United States, but also other countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei which are in dispute with China in the sea through which some US$5 trillion of ship-borne trade passes each year.

In this fluid geopolitical landscape, Mr Abe is seeking to align his longstanding foreign policy plans around that of Mr Trump's "America First" agenda. Thus, in a context whereby the president appears to want a more internationally assertive Japan, the prime minister has a longstanding ambition to overturn much of the remaining legal and political underpinning of the country's post-war pacifist security identity so that it can become more externally engaged.

It is no coincidence that one of the visits that Mr Trump may reportedly make during his trip is to a naval base in Yokosuka. There, he will see a destroyer that has been refitted as what is being depicted as Japan's first post-war aircraft carrier.

One big, specific measure that Mr Abe wishes to push for is abolition of Article Nine. This is the clause in Japan's post-war constitution which constrains the country's military to a strictly defensive role rather than a conventional army, and has meant that defence spending has most often remained below one per cent of gross domestic product. To overturn this, Mr Abe would need not just a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the legislature, but also a simple majority in a national referendum. This could prove a major challenge, however, given the large body of Japanese public opinion which still values its post-war pacifism in the only country in the world to have ever been attacked with nuclear weapons.

Taken overall, Mr Trump's trip therefore represents Mr Abe's latest move to fortify Japan's US alliance in the face of China's rise. He would dearly welcome capping his long period of office off with historic change around the country's post-war pacifism which may enable it to become more internationally engaged, but at the risk of significantly inflaming tensions with Beijing.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics