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Japan at the negotiating table | The World Weekly

In October 2017 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won the snap general election in a landslide victory. Yet events in recent months have put the PM’s leadership in doubt. Cronyism allegations have swirled around Mr. Abe, with one close friend apparently given government land at a discounted price, and another receiving a site within the Ehime prefecture special economic zone for their new veterinary school.

The Japanese Finance Ministry has admitted to doctoring documents connected to the former land sale to remove references to Mr. Abe and his wife Akie Abe. Mr. Abe has denied wrongdoing before the Japanese Diet and promised to stay on to restore trust in government.

Some observers suggested that PM Abe may not survive the LDP leadership vote in September. Last weekend, over 50,000 people gathered outside the Diet calling for Mr. Abe’s resignation. A Nippon News Network poll published on April 15 gave him an approval rating of 26.7%.

As scandals rock Japan, there are foreign policy challenges aplenty across East Asia. China continues to wield greater military and economic control over the region. America’s recent waves of tariffs have raised the risk of protectionist barriers to trade and even a China-US trade war. Most prominently of all, the next few months will see a series of summits between North Korea, South Korea, and the US with the future of the Korean peninsula on the table.

Finding diplomatic solutions to these issues could be a key “asset” for Mr. Abe to ease pressure on his struggling premiership argues Giulio Pugliese, lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London. “In the past Abe has played up foreign policy successes to shore up his domestic support.”

‘Eggs in one basket'

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Tokyo from April 15-17 for wide-ranging talks with Japanese officials. The two sides have a troubled history, clashing in recent years over maritime disputes in the East China Sea.

The message this week was for a “new starting point” in relations between Japan and China. Officials from both sides confirmed that plans for a trilateral summit next month between PM Abe, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were being accelerated.

A further point of agreement was for a peaceful and successful outcome in the “direction of denuclearisation” from the upcoming US and South Korean summits with North Korea. 

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi (L), and Taro Kono, Japan's foreign minister, stop for photographs before the high-level Japan-China economic dialogue in Tokyo on April 16, 2018.

China has kept itself at the centre of the flurry of diplomacy on the Korean peninsula. North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un visited Beijing last month and Chinese President Xi Jinping is reportedly set to meet Mr. Kim in Pyongyang “soon”. Japanese officials have thus far not secured a meeting with the North Korean leader.

It should be noted that “suspicion” between Japan and China will persist, Steve Tsang, Director of the SOAS China Institute, told The World Weekly. “It is inherent in the divergence in belief and values, with Japan committed to democracy and human rights while China under the Communist Party is fundamentally anti-democratic.”

Trade was another priority in Mr. Yi’s visit. Japan and China held their first high-level economic dialogue in eight years. They agreed to explore a bilateral trade deal, and agreed on the importance of the free trade international order. “We shared the recognition that a trade war caused by any nation would have a massive impact on the prosperity of the global economy,” Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters.

In 2017, Japan imported $164.35 billion worth of goods from China, and exported $132.82 billion, making the latter Japan’s biggest trading partner, according to the International Monetary Fund DOTS database.

Some observers suggested that Japan was meeting China to shield itself against expanding American protectionism. “This is a signal by Japan, challenging President Trump’s America First economic tariffs by suggesting that Japan is not putting all its eggs in one basket,” says Dr. Pugliese.

Diplomacy in Mar-a-Lago

Friendliness has dominated President Trump and Prime Minister Abe’s interactions. The two men have officially met six times and spoken by phone twenty times, with the prime minister a vocal supporter of Mr. Trump’s sweeping sanctions policy against North Korea.

Yet 2018 has been a difficult period for this ‘special relationship’. The announcement in March of planned diplomatic talks with North Korea jarred with Mr. Abe’s hawkish stance on Japan’s nuclear armed neighbour. Further uncertainties followed with the announcement of President Trump’s 10% tariffs on aluminium imports and 25% on steel imports.

Many US allies received tariff exemptions. Japan did not.

Mr. Trump has regularly lamented America’s deficit trade relationship with Japan. Earlier this month he declared in a tweet that this was “not fair or sustainable”. America had a trade deficit of $56.1 billion in goods and services with Japan in 2017, according to the US Department of Commerce. Economists remain divided over the extent to which this is harmful to the US economy. 

Mr. Abe, therefore, landed in Mar-a-Lago, Florida on April 17 seeking an array of assurances from President Trump. “Japan wants to see a more predictable and multilateral approach to US diplomacy in pursuit of shared interests, so Trump’s means and methods are disturbing to Japan,” James L. Schoff, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told TWW.

The two-day visit promoted closer ties between the two nations, including Mr. Abe and Mr. Trump indulging in a five-hour-long game of golf.

North Korea loomed over Wednesday’s joint press conference to end Mr. Abe’s visit. PM Abe was full of praise for the “historic turning point” Mr. Trump had created with Mr. Kim. He underlined the importance of the denuclearisation of North Korea and noted that Mr. Trump had promised to address the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea when he met with Mr. Kim.

According to the Japanese Finance Ministry, seventeen Japanese citizens were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Only five have been returned.

Both leaders stressed the importance of keeping “maximum pressure” on Kim Jong-Un, with President Trump keeping the option open to cancel meeting Mr. Kim if “we don’t think it’s going to be successful”.

“I think they are generally on the same page on North Korea,” says Mr. Schoff. “They had extensive interaction on North Korean policy, so Abe is as well-informed as anyone on US thinking and had time to inject his priorities. That came across in the abductees issue and will hopefully keep the US cautious on deal making with Kim.”

During the talks, U.S. first lady Melania Trump (C) entertained Japanese first lady Akie Abe (R), seen here visiting the Flagler Museum on April 18, 2018.

There were, however, lingering disagreements on trade. America refused to lift tariffs on Japanese steel and aluminium, with the two leaders committing instead to negotiations for a bilateral trade agreement.

Earlier reports in US media that President Trump was open to returning to the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP) were quashed by the president: “I like bilateral better”. PM Abe, by contrast, maintained that trade negotiations with the US would be based on his government’s belief that TPP was “best for both countries”.

The TPP was initially an Asia-Pacific free-trade deal between 12 countries, including the USA, proposed by US President Barack Obama. President Trump withdrew America from the agreement, citing its adverse effect on jobs and benefits for non-US companies. The remaining 11 countries reaffirmed their commitment to the TPP in March.

In trade, some argue, emerges the transactional nature of US-Japanese relations under President Trump. “Not being a party in talks with North Korea, Japan is almost completely dependent upon America”, Yuki Tatsumi, director of the Japan programme at the non-partisan Stimson Center in Washington DC, told TWW. “As such, Abe had very little choice than trying to accommodate US demands for bilateral trade talks, in exchange for public verbal commitments from Trump on addressing abduction and other concerns against North Korea.”

Mr. Abe's critics presented him as a peripheral figure in Florida. The talks with North Korea regularly stole the focus from the prime minister. News broke during Mr. Abe’s visit that CIA Director Mike Pompeo had visited Pyongyang over the Easter Weekend to lay the groundwork for Mr. Trump’s proposed visit, and South Korea confirmed it was discussing a peace deal with North Korea to replace the temporary ceasefire that ended the Korean War in 1953.

Handshakes and vague promises with Chinese and American officials this week will provide some distraction from Mr. Abe’s bubbling scandals. 

But the future of his premiership may depend on him securing more concrete diplomatic success stories than he achieved this week, most urgently: keeping Japanese interests high on the agenda during the historic talks with Pyongyang in the coming months.

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