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How will LDP leadership candidates pledge to fill gaps with China and the US?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump chat on a golf course in Florida in April 2018. (Photo courtesy of the Cabinet Public Relations Office)

TOKYO -- Following a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took at his official residence in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on the night of Aug. 22, the prime minister gave a brief explanation of what the two had discussed: "Two months have passed since the historical (June 12) U.S.-North Korean summit. We analyzed the latest state of affairs, and conferred in great detail about our policy toward North Korea going forward."

According to a source close to the Abe administration, however, the phone discussion seems to have been far more substantial, for its purpose was for President Trump to make a proposal with regard to North Korean policy, and sound Prime Minister Abe out on the idea.

Soon after Donald Trump became the president of the United States in January 2017, the state of affairs surrounding North Korea soured. Abe has repeatedly exchanged views on North Korea with Trump, and has navigated the risky seas by working closely with the U.S. and exhibiting the robustness of the Japan-U.S. alliance both domestically and to the rest of the world. Some have defended this tactic, saying that Japan has no choice but to rely on U.S. military strength, while others have criticized it as subservience to the U.S. gone too far.

Since a downturn in tensions surrounding North Korea following the U.S.-North Korean summit, however, differences in policy between Japan and the U.S. have become more pronounced. In an effort to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with China, Trump has raised tariffs on Chinese imports, and China has retaliated in kind. Meanwhile, the Abe administration has made explicit its intention to protect free trade, drawing a clear line between Trump's protectionist policy. As the Trump administration is considering instituting high tariffs on Japanese automobiles, there is no denying the possibility that the Japan-U.S. alliance could be shaken up by trade policies.

"Diplomacy based on shared values and interests" on which Prime Minister Abe has placed high priority is also at risk of falling apart. In an address to U.S. Congress in April 2015, Abe characterized the Japan-U.S. alliance as one that "cherishes our shared values of the rule of law, respect for human rights and freedom." But whether Japan shares values with the administration of President Trump, who has at times made comments that make light of the law, and has generated controversy by hemming and hawing about criticizing racist organizations, is questionable.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands before talks in Da Nang, Vietnam, in November 2017. (Kyodo)

Trump is applying increasingly more pressure on China, but Prime Minister Abe is planning to visit China in October if he wins the Sept. 20 presidential election of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and thus continues to be prime minister, with hopes of putting Japan's relations with its neighbor back on the right track.

Abe has been unsparing in his criticism of China's naval expansion in the East China and South China seas, and there are no prospects for when Chinese vessels will stop their intrusion into territorial waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. But because the current situation in which Japan cannot discuss global issues with Chinese leaders is only dragging down Japan's capacity for diplomacy as a whole, the Abe administration is making moves to improve its relationship with China.

Japan will enter a stage in which it will be closely tested on how it juggles its ties with the U.S. and China, but because Japan lacks a blueprint for how it will do so, the process will involve much fumbling and trial-and-error.

Since Abe's second Cabinet, the prime minister has upheld "diplomacy that takes a panoramic view of the globe" based on proactive contributions to world peace, but the Japanese Self-Defense Forces have not been dispatched abroad since troops returned in 2017 from a United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. There seems to be no solution in sight for the top priority issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents, and observers point out that a resolution to the issue of the Northern Territories dispute with Russia seems further from accomplishment than before, with Russian military forces growing more and more active on the islands.

Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who is running against Abe in the LDP presidential election, has also been unable to present a new diplomatic vision, only going as far as to pledge that he will "establish a diplomatic and national security framework that addresses changes in international affairs."

(Japanese original by Yoshitaka Koyama, Political News Department)

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