Can the Trump Summit Save Abe?

With daily protests on the Diet’s doorstep, declining polls, and persistent scandals, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Florida to meet with Donald Trump could seem like a chance to get away from it all for some golf. Instead, Abe’s visit to Trump comes with the United States set to impose steel tariffs on Japan – after conspicuously passing them over for an exemption – and members of the administration apparently frustrated that bilateral economic talks have gone nowhere1Sheila A. Smith, Council on Foreign Relations, April 16 2018, “Abe Returns to Mar-a-Lago. As if that weren’t enough, Abe is also tasked with keeping Japan’s interests in the frame at the possible upcoming summit between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

If Abe has had a single consistent success in his second run as prime minister, it has been his foreign policy, especially following Donald Trump’s election in 2016. He has maintained forward momentum on trade liberalization in East Asia, seen relations with China moderate to the point where a state visit is now possible, and has so far kept Donald Trump’s anger towards Japan’s trade deficits at bay.

Could he use this success in foreign policy to recover his standing at home? It’s not necessarily a bad idea. Japanese voters appreciate competency above all else, and Abe has largely demonstrated competency on foreign policy. If he could produce a successful outcome from his meeting with Trump, perhaps he could remind the Japanese electorate that he still knows how to work the helm and manage Japan’s diplomatic relations with its most erratic partner.

Public anger about Moritomo Gakuen is amplified by the sense that it confirms many people’s long-standing suspicions about Abe

It’s possible; but it’s a long shot. The first problem is that trying to refocus on foreign policy successes would not actually address the point of the scandals Abe faces. The public anger about Moritomo Gakuen is less about Abe’s competency as a leader or even the hardline nationalism implied by Abe and his wife’s involvement with the far-right school, than it is about the sense that the whole affair confirms the suspicions much of the public has had about Abe all along. While the full involvement of Abe and his wife (who is supposed to have brokered the deal with the school’s director) is not yet completely known, the simple fact that the scandal exists feeds directly into his critics’ confirmation bias, while the botched cover-up in the Ministry of Finance serves to confirm, for many people, the extent of the Prime Minister’s disdain for the rules. The Kake Gakuen scandal simply piles on the idea that Abe is happy to cut deals for his (often dubious) friends, and use his position to cover his tracks. A successful visit at Mar-a-Lago won’t be able to change the perceptions that the scandals have created.

The visit could even compound Abe’s troubles. As successful as he’s been at keeping Trump off Japan’s back by keeping the buddy routine going and punting all the difficult economic talks to the bilateral economic forum between Taro Aso and Mike Pence, Abe’s strategy may be hitting a wall. The failure, so far, to secure an exclusion from Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs is the best example – while there is no clear or confirmed reason why Japan wasn’t exempted, it’s the exactly the kind of thing that the baseball hats and rounds of golf were supposed to protect Japan from. To be fair, it’s impossible to know what Trump might have done to Japan had Abe not reached out so directly – Trump has certainly shown a willingness to flip the tables with other allies and embarrass their leaders on trade issues if they don’t follow his leads, so it’s impossible to say how Trump may have dragged Abe over the coals if not for the charm offensive. It was not a bad strategy – but as the steel tariffs and rumors of U.S. frustration with the bilateral dialogues show, it’s a strategy that may be reaching its limits.

Abe may get Japanese concerns tabled at the Trump-Kim summit – but the success would be little better than symbolic

Abe’s approach to the Mar-a-Lago summit seems to be twofold; keeping Japanese concerns on the table in the U.S. summit with North Korea, while keeping a bilateral free trade agreement off the table entirely. On the former, Japanese concerns – primarily concerning the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea and North Korean missiles pointed at Japan – should not be deal-breaking (granted, we have no idea what the agenda will be for the Trump-Kim summit and therefore no real idea what might be deal-breaking) but also don’t offer much hope of a successful conclusion for Japan. North Korea almost certainly won’t offer anything of substance on the abductees, and the Trump administration’s focus on North Korea seems to be denuclearization rather than its ballistic missile program. It would be a success for Abe to get both issues on the agenda for the Trump-Kim summit, but anything beyond that is probably asking too much – making the success not much better than symbolic.

Abe may have other moves up his sleeve, such as the possibility of gently walking the United States back into the Trans-Pacific Partnership or broadening the bilateral economic dialogue to cover Trump’s pet concerns like the trade balance. Even so, the possibility of a major win on either count is so slim that the only realistic standard for success is the degree to which it keeps Trump and his administration off Japan’s back – and that’s a hard thing to spin to the domestic audience as a major foreign policy triumph. Taking a lead from his European counterparts and ostentatiously standing up to Trump is another option, but goes entirely against Abe’s instincts and philosophy towards the United States; moreover, it would have such a low marginal benefit back home (where Trump, though broadly disliked, provokes far less vehement public reactions than in Europe) that the costs would far outweigh the benefits even if it were possible.

The result is that Abe goes to Mar-a-Lago with little to gain but much to risk. If Trump pushes back on any of the overtures outlined above it could undercut the narrative of Abe’s competency on foreign policy and leave him open to the line of attack – fair or not – that he has overextended himself with Trump and has nothing to show for it. If Abe wants to extricate himself from the scandals before him, he will have to do it all on his own; he’s unlikely to find a silver bullet for his problems in Mar-a-Lago.

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Paul Nadeau is an adjunct assistant professor at Temple University's Japan campus, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Geoeconomics, and an adjunct fellow with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He was previously a private secretary with the Japanese Diet and as a member of the foreign affairs and trade staff of Senator Olympia Snowe. He holds a B.A. from the George Washington University, an M.A. in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a PhD from the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy. He should be general manager of the Montreal Canadiens.

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