Japan Trumped: A Trustworthy Man
SNA (Tokyo) — On November 17, 2016, after becoming the very first foreign leader to meet with US President-elect Donald Trump—a meeting which lasted about 90 minutes, twice as long as planned—an apparently buoyant Prime Minister Shinzo Abe briefly addressed the gathered news media representatives. His statement was later published in full by the Japanese Foreign Ministry:
President-elect Trump kindly set aside time during this very busy period with staffing decisions. I believe we were able to truly talk at length and extensively in a frank and candid manner. The meeting took place in a very warm atmosphere. It gave me confidence that the two of us can build a relationship of trust. As for the content of the meeting, I shared my basic views with Mr. Trump. We discussed a variety of issues. I would like to refrain from commenting on the details as the President-elect has not yet been officially inaugurated as President, and furthermore, this was an informal meeting. We agreed to meet again at a mutually convenient time to have a broader and more in-depth discussion. I cannot answer questions about the specifics of the meeting. In any case, our alliance will not function without trust. I came away convinced that President-elect Trump is a leader who can be trusted.
The word “trust” appeared three times in his short statement, and that was the main message that hit the international headlines: The Japanese prime minister declared Donald Trump to be “a trustworthy man.”
For their respective audiences back home, each man outwardly received what he wanted. Shinzo Abe proved himself a dynamic leader, taking the initiative to build a warm personal relationship with the unpredictable American president-elect. Donald Trump gained the stamp of approval from an experienced head of government: Abe had now declared that Trump is a man with whom the world can safely do business.
Prime Minister Abe telegraphed well in advance of his meeting with Donald Trump that his central theme would be to demonstrate to the US president-elect the enduring importance of the US-Japan alliance. One may safely assume that was indeed a major, if not the major, substantive topic of discussion.
It is not clear that the meeting went into any great detail. Trump’s own foreign policy team hasn’t yet been formed, and no doubt Abe used much of the time to ingratiate himself with Trump and his family.
The signs are, however, that Prime Minister Abe came away from the meeting with a genuinely optimistic account.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman and Abe’s most important lieutenant, told the media that Donald Trump may become “an unusually realistic” US president, and that the bilateral relationship was off to “the best of starts.” We must presume that Suga’s public comments were based on an assessment of Trump that Abe had privately related to him after the meeting was concluded.
Abe aide Katsuyuki Kawai, who lead the weeklong mission to establish contact with the Trump team, also told reporters, after his return to Japan on November 22, that the meeting had been a tremendous success. He declared that the meeting had “proven” that Trump regarded the US-Japan alliance with “the greatest importance.”
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is another area that was almost certainly touched upon in the Abe-Trump meeting. The Japanese prime minister had stated in advance that he would try to convince the US president-elect of its necessity, and since they did have 90 minutes together, the issue must have been raised at least briefly.
We may infer, however, that in the face of Abe’s pleas that TPP be maintained, that Donald Trump was noncommittal, leaving the Japanese prime minister unsure of precisely where matters stood. We can infer this fact from Abe’s joint statement the following day with Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, in which the two leaders “committed themselves to stepping up efforts to complete each country’s domestic procedure for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) approval and to put the accord into force at the earliest possible timing.” Had Trump indicated to Abe during their meeting in New York that he would carry through with his campaign promise and ditch the TPP agreement, then Abe would not have been continuing to heighten expectations.
Indeed, in response to a rising idea that should the United States pull out that Japan itself should lead the other eleven countries in ratifying the controversial trade agreement anyway, Abe asserted on November 21 that “TPP without the United States would be meaningless.”
Within an hour or two of making that statement, President-elect Donald Trump released his own message which said, “I am going to issue our notification of intent to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a potential disaster for our country. Instead, we will negotiate fair, bilateral trade deals that bring jobs and industry back onto American shores.”
So, four days after declaring Donald Trump “a trustworthy man,” Shinzo Abe saw one of his two main policy goals for their private meeting go up in flames.
But perhaps Abe’s excitement is nevertheless justified as regards his other policy goal—confirming the US-Japan alliance.
We already have Toru Hashimoto’s declaration that Donald Trump’s election will be “a great opportunity to think seriously about Japan’s self-determination.” And we also have the better-informed Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga’s comments about Trump becoming “an unusually realistic” US president.
Why are these rightwing Japanese politicians so upbeat about Donald Trump?
Based on the known political positions of all of the people involved (including Trump himself going so far as once saying that Japan should build its own nuclear weapons), isn’t it just possible that Abe’s good spirits after meeting with Trump relate to a basic agreement between them that they will work together to remilitarize Japan and to put the East Asian nation in a position to defend itself, with its own unfettered arsenal of modern weapons?
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