Thursday, June 7, 2018

When Abe meets Trump

Abe meets with President Trump on Thursday, June 7.

It is unlikely to go well, unless Abe brings a very publicity-worthy concession to Trump. Just as Japan is missing from the print edition of the latest CIA World Factbook, it is also missing from the President’s playbook.

Prime Minister Abe made a grave mistake of trying to form a personal relationship with the new American president. Whereas Trump liked the good press of their golf outings and of confronting a North Korean missile launch in a public dining room, he was likely disappointed not to see more drama develop. Trump has had to settle for the “drama” of a tense relationship with Japan.

Trump still dismisses Japan as free-riding off the US military and economy. Japan’s contribution to the North Korea discussions has been to issue reminders about Japanese abductees held in North Korea and to urge broader definitions of WMD that include more than nuclear weapons are further dismissed are unhelpful, if not obstructionist to any peace deal with Pyongyang.

Unlike the South Koreans' President Moon, Abe has offered neither impressive trade concessions nor the vocal solidarity of a good ally. Trump is unlikely moved by stories of 12 probably dead Japanese abductees. This gives him no dramatic footage of his meeting them on the tarmac. The casino legislation introduced and passed soon after Abe’s November 2016 meeting with Trump probably did not impress either. Any ribbon cutting is years down the road and operations would be hindered by peculiar restrictions.

Abe cannot expect help from Trump’s new favorites, China and South Korea. The Prime Minister’s campaign to re-adjust Pacific War history glorifying Imperial Japan has alienated and annoyed all of the island nation’s neighbors. None have an incentive to trust his foreign policy judgment. Abe’s security vision, first of an “Arc of Democracy” and now of a “security diamond” excludes both China and South Korea.

To right the relationship with the White House, Abe needs a magic moment. He needs dramatic signing ceremonies with a smiling Trump, happy Trump constituents, and photos that linger. Surely there is an industrial and agricultural market to open; a US military exercise to join; and a POW reconciliation program to enhance (MOFA just scuttled it). Trump is weary of hearing what Japan can’t do or even will do; he wants to know what Japan will do now. Trump relishes the moment.

If a desperate Abe brings nothing dramatic to the table, the only thing memorable about his trip will be that the Korean-American community exhibited a Comfort Women memorial in the Capitol Building on the day of his visit.

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