Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent visit to Europe highlighted his struggle to make diplomatic progress, as differences emerged between Japan and its allies and neighboring countries over their respective stances toward North Korea, which has repeated provocative acts.
On July 4, the day before Abe was to leave Japan to attend a Group of Twenty summit in Germany, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile. Because of this some government observers expected that the prime minister, who has been striving to step up pressure on North Korea, would stand in the limelight during his week in Europe.
Abe managed to reach an agreement with U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to intensify pressure on the secluded state following its latest missile launch. However, conciliatory phrases were incorporated into their joint statement.
One phrase said that the three countries "stand ready to offer a brighter future for the DPRK (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) if it chooses the right path." This was added out of consideration for the Moon government, which is pursuing dialogue with the North.
When he met separately with Abe on July 7, President Moon underscored the need to revive South-North dialogue, highlighting differences between Abe and himself.
A source from Japan's entourage expressed concern that North Korea could make a fool of the three countries' efforts to intensify pressure on Pyongyang. "North Korea could think, 'They can only increase pressure this much,'" the source said.
The Chinese and Russian leaders also distanced themselves from Abe's pursuit of increased pressure on North Korea. Chinese President Xi Jinping told Abe on July 8, "We're opposed to imposing separate sanctions." Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, only told Abe that Russia understands Japan's worries.
In the meantime, Abe and Xi agreed to increase dialogue between the two leaders while making their own assertions over bilateral relations, suggesting that ties between Tokyo and Beijing have shown signs of improvement.
However, Xi only quietly listened when the Japanese prime minister proposed mutual visits by the leaders of the two countries, and stopped short of giving a clear answer.
Broad agreement between Japan and the EU on an Economic Partnership Agreement was a clear achievement of Prime Minister Abe during his latest visit to Europe.
At a subsequent news conference, Abe said the agreement would create momentum for free trade. He then said, "Japan should be an intermediary between the 11 members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the United States," keeping an eye on the possible return of the U.S. to the free trade pact.
Trump, however, brought up the U.S. trade deficit with Japan and barriers inhibiting access to the Japanese market during his talks with Abe on July 8, casting a shadow over the bilateral alliance, in which personal relations between the two play a key role.
Some within the Abe government had hoped that if Prime Minister Abe made major diplomatic achievements during his visit to Europe, it would help the administration regain support from the public. Abe's influence has declined considerably following his Liberal Democratic Party's crushing defeat in the recent Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, and in Europe he fell short of the expectations of top officials in his administration.