Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has emerged from his first summit in Washington with U.S. President Donald Trump since the latter took office. As the U.S. president has vowed to put "America First" and could potentially turn his back on international cooperation, Japan faces a new diplomatic challenge in forging relations with Trump's America.
The two leaders reaffirmed the significance of free trade and the Japan-U.S. alliance, while the joint statement released after their meeting on Feb. 10 stipulated that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty -- under which the U.S. is obliged to defend Japan in case of an armed attack on the country -- extends to the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, which are also claimed by China.
Given the outcome of the bilateral meeting, it appears that Japan-U.S. relations have got off to a good start despite concerns over Trump's earlier provocative remarks toward Japan.
The summit focused on economic and security issues. While Japanese officials had been concerned over the economic agenda, the joint communique stated that the two leaders "emphasized that they remain fully committed to strengthening the economic relationships between their two countries and across the region, based on rules for free and fair trade."
With regard to the auto trade issue, a focal point of the meeting, Prime Minister Abe explained the achievements of Japanese corporations in the United States, such as local production and job creation. In response, Trump hailed Japan's investments in the United States. The president reportedly stopped short of criticizing Japan's exchange rate policy, despite his earlier claim that Japan has driven down the value of the yen, another source of concern for Japanese officials.
All in all, President Trump appears to have adopted a reserved approach toward Japan's auto trade and exchange rate policy.
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence agreed to launch bilateral dialogue on economic issues. As both countries have often encountered a clash of interests in economic talks, the new scheme, which was proposed by Japan, will build an agenda based on ministerial-level dialogue, thereby scaling back the level of commitment by Trump, who has repeatedly made radical remarks over the issue.
On the security front, the two countries underscored "the unshakable Japan-U.S. alliance" and reaffirmed that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty covers the Senkakus and that the United States will be fully committed to defending its allies with regard to North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile development programs.
After the summit, the two leaders boarded Air Force One to travel to Trump's villa in Florida, where they enjoyed a round of golf together and shared two dinners. The level of hospitality shown to Abe was unusually high.
The prime minister's trip to the United States was primarily aimed at reconfirming with the new president the significance of the bilateral alliance. In that sense, the content of the joint statement largely matched Japan's expectations.
However, the United States may use the joint statement to press Japan to make concessions in various situations in the future. The generosity shown in the statement may represent the U.S. strategy of first giving away what Japan desires and then making it impossible for Japan to turn down U.S. demands.
On the economic front, Trump is eager to strike a bilateral trade accord with Japan. This is apparently because such an agreement -- unlike the multinational Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact that the U.S. has declared it will pull out of -- would make it easier for the U.S. to win concessions from the other country by wielding its overwhelming economic power.
While Tokyo is reluctant to negotiate a bilateral trade pact, it cannot afford to flatly refuse from the outset. There may arise a situation in the future in which Japan is pressured to enter negotiations to forge a bilateral accord as the new economic dialogue unfolds. Trump might even come to the fore and make a unilateral demand that Japan open up its auto and agricultural markets.
Japan will need to squarely resist unreasonable demands from the United States. Tokyo is also urged to tenaciously explain to Washington the significance of the TPP, which is aimed at bringing about high-level liberalization in multilateral trade and investments.
Furthermore, even though the United States has acknowledged that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty extends to the Senkaku Islands, the U.S. may not necessarily fulfill its obligation to defend Japan in the event that an armed conflict between Japan and China arises over the Senkakus.
Japan should not yield to unreasonable demands from the U.S. in trade talks in return for Trump's acknowledgement that the Senkaku Islands are covered by the bilateral security treaty.
While the U.S. president did not touch on Japan's contributions to the cost of maintaining U.S. forces stationed in Japan during the meeting, the U.S. may demand that Japan shoulder its "fair share" of the costs through additional defense outlays and other forms.
President Trump held telephone talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping as if to coincide with Abe's visit to Washington. During the phone conversation, Trump agreed to honor the "one China" policy, which acknowledges Taiwan as part of China. While the move itself is a positive one, the Trump administration could be employing the tactic of pitting Japan against China to withdraw favorable conditions for the United States.
If Japan were to keep assuming that the United States and Japan will jointly counter China, it would be failing to accurately grasp U.S.-China relations. Tokyo, therefore, should proactively move to improve its ties with Beijing.
Despite international criticism for Japan being subservient to the United States, Japan has counted on the U.S. for its security. Such a stance may not have posed a problem when the U.S. was leading the international community based on common values of freedom, democracy, basic human rights and the rule of law. The Trump administration, however, does not necessarily attach weight to such conventional values.
It is regrettable that Abe withheld from commenting on Trump's executive order temporarily banning the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority nations to the United States during his joint press conference with the U.S. president, merely saying it is a "domestic matter." The prime minister should have delivered his own message to the world as the issue concerns the international community.
Japan could lose the international community's confidence if it were to cozy up to President Trump simply to secure an "unshakable Japan-U.S. alliance."
Japan has a responsibility to play a mediatory role to prevent the United States from adopting an inward-looking policy, while urging the country to stay committed to the framework of international cooperation.