The US-Japan alliance seemed poised to dodge a major bullet as the countdown began for the start of the first official summit between President Donald Trump and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since last November’s US presidential election. Abe and Trump will talk in Washington on Friday, and then fly together on Air Force One down to Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida for a round or two of golf.
The two sides have more or less reached agreement to emphasize the positive in the alliance, while steering clear – for now, at least -- of some of the more controversial aspects of Trump’s “America First” strategy that could cause friction between Washington and Tokyo.
Japanese officials seem relieved, but remain wary that the mercurial Trump’s core view of Japan, rooted in the seemingly bygone years of 1980s bilateral trade friction, could emerge during the “relaxing” country club moments between the two leaders, sparking a downward spiral in the relationship. Japanese officials remain concerned that Abe, who has no shortage of high-regard for his own diplomatic prowess, could stumble in his pursuit of a “personal relationship” with Trump, and unwittingly provoke the US president. The recent telephone dust-up between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull provided Tokyo with all the warnings needed.
“This is no way to run an alliance,” said one Japanese official involved in the summit preparations.
THE MATTIS EFFECT: Several factors account for the relatively rosy assessment of the summit’s prospect coming from both Japanese and American officials. First and foremost is what’s become known as the “Mattis factor,” – the influence of the new US defense secretary, retired Marine Corps General James Mattis. Unlike the national security advisor, retired Army General Michael Flynn, Mattis does not have a close personal relationship with Trump. He was not a presence around Trump during the presidential campaign, and a mere 40-minute interview led to his hiring. But the president took a liking to Mattis’s “mad dog” image, and has somewhat grudgingly come to accept that he needs Mattis’s knowledge and gravitas with the US foreign policy community, to effectively stabilize and direct US security policy.
Mattis has taken it upon himself to preemptively set the tone of the US-Japan (and US-South Korea) alliance, before nationalist trade hawks can set up shop in the White House and effectively undercut ongoing efforts to deepen the US-Japan security alliance in the face of serious challenges posed by the behavior of China and North Korea.
Mattis chose South Korea and Japan as his first foreign destinations as defense secretary in large part because of deep concerns in the US about the potential for provocative actions by North Korea, an effective response to which would inevitably necessitate close coordination between Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul. In that context, Mattis, in his talks in Tokyo and Seoul last week, reaffirmed the US commitment to the defense of both countries, and to an active US role promoting peace and stability in the region.
Mattis pointedly praised Japan’s contributions to financing of the alliance, effectively shelving Trump’s repeated campaign rhetoric that Japan (and other allies) should be paying more for their own defense. The issue of increased “host nation support” by Japan is not on the formal Trump-Abe agenda.
To the opposite, Mattis emphasized diplomacy over military actions to thwart Chinese aggressive actions in the South China Sea. He also reiterated the US view that the disputed Senkaku Islands fall under the terms of the US-Japan security treaty, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later repeated in a telephone call with Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida.
The net result is that, for now, Mattis has effectively insulated the US-Japan security alliance from critiques by US nationalists (including Trump) that the structure of the alliance in effect subsidizes Japan’s economic competitiveness vis a vis the United States.
TRADE SHOP NOT YET OPEN: Meanwhile, the White House’s trade policy operation is not fully up-and-running, and appointments at the State Department and Pentagon to key Asia-related policy posts continue to lag.
Trump’s choice to head his trade policy team, former investment banker Wilbur Ross, has yet to be confirmed as commerce secretary by the Senate, and his choice to head the US trade agency, Robert Lighthizer, remains even deeper in political limbo. As a fellow billionaire and successful businessman, Ross will likely emerge as Trump’s top confidante on trade policy. Until then, the administration is unprepared to discuss what US trade policy in East Asia will look like in the wake of Trump’s decision to scuttle US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional trade deal, which much of the region was looking to as a de facto barrier to China’s overbearing presence.
China is likely to be the focus of Trump’s trade hawks, but Japan could easily be ensnarled in related disputes over currency manipulation and other alleged unfair trade practices sparked by concerns about Beijing.
The Administration is also woefully unprepared to discuss with Japanese officials the specifics of an enhanced defense posture the US might expect from Tokyo in the context of a more hard line US stance toward China. For example, the possibility of expanded Japanese naval patrols in the South China Sea and in the vicinity of Taiwan did not even come up during the Mattis visit to Tokyo, and his not likely to come up in the Trump-Abe talks.
At the White House, Asia policy remains largely in the hands of Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief political advisor, and Peter Narvarro, an economics professor who gained Trump’s ear with his relentless criticisms of China’s trade policies and overall expansionist tendencies in East Asia. Bannon is on record forecasting as inevitable a US-China military clash in the South China Sea. Both Bannon and Navarro are playing a big role in vetting names for potential Asia policy appointments, though Navarro’s role seems destined to diminish somewhat once Ross is on the job.
National Security Advisor Flynn has a deep interest in Asia, but remains largely confined to political-military issues, as does Matt Pottinger, Flynn’s hand-picked choice to head the National Security Council’s Asia unit. Pottinger, who is well-regarded in Washington’s Asia policy community, is a former Wall Street Journal reporter based in China, but came to know Flynn during his stint as a US Marine intelligence officer in Afghanistan.
It is notable, therefore, that the Trump Administration’s point person for the Abe trip is Kenneth Juster, newly-appointed deputy assistant to the president for international economic affairs. Juster, who has extensive experience as both an investment banker and US government official, inherited the assignment from Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, who coordinated Abe’s first meeting with Trump last November, shortly after the presidential election. For this trip, Japan’s embassy in Washington again turned to Kushner, but he urged Flynn to get the NSC more involved, leading to Juster’s role.
The heavy role of the Administration’s trade shop in the Abe visit could foretell some future tensions. For now, the potential flash points will not be front-and-center on the Trump-Abe agenda.
YET ANOTHER ‘ECONOMIC FRAMEWORK’; Given Trump’s nationalist economic policy proclivities, as reflected in the US withdrawal from TPP, Abe and his advisors have concluded Japan needs to come across as an ally of Trump’s “make America great again” mantra.
Thus, Abe will arrive in Washington with the outlines of a new (yet another) bilateral US-Japan economic framework, which would focus on various steps to assist in US infrastructure and advanced technologies, all designed to generate upwards of 700,000 American jobs. (Some in Japan have pointed out that Abe’s proposal could easily be turned into a Tweet by Trump, if the president is so inclined.)
But Abe and his team will be walking on thin ice, as the merits of their argument about the benefits of Japanese investment in the US may not coincide with Trump’s political imperative to highlight “American” success. Japanese investments in the US auto sector create jobs, the nationalist argument goes, but at the expense of US market share formerly held by General Motors and Ford, and with no reciprocal expansion of market share for US automakers trying to sell in Japan.
The same suspect nationalist logic could trip-up Abe in any efforts made to promote the benefits of Japanese investment in US infrastructure, such as high-speed railways.
Japanese official emphasize that Abe will not even mention TPP, out of concern to not incite Trump’s ire. But Abe will likely emphasize the importance of the US and Japan standing up for the principle of trade agreements setting a gold standard for openness, transparency, and fairness. To that the end, Japanese officials say, Abe is prepared to argue that progress on bilateral trade issues can then be extended multilaterally.
The two sides are still considering announcement of preliminary exploration of a bilateral free trade agreement.
Abe is likely to suggest that the envisioned US-Japan economic framework be co-chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, which might serve to remove the issue somewhat from the emerging nationalist chain of command on trade policy within the Trump administration.
Meanwhile, Japan’s minister trade and industry, Hiroshige Seko, a key aide to Abe and a major player on economic policy, will not accompany the prime minister to Washington. Instead, he will wait until Ross wins Senate confirmation.
On security issues, Tokyo would be thrilled if Trump were to personally restate the US commitment to defense of the Senkaku Islands, but Japanese officials are reluctant to push the issue too far. Trump, with his “transactional” nature, could conceivably withhold his personal comment until Tokyo provided something the US wants, a kind of zero-sum give-and-take that allies would probably do best to avoid.