In many respects, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Washington and Florida to meet and play golf with President Donald Trump went as well as the Japanese leader could have hoped.
Sure, there was an awkward handshake between the two leaders that may have gone on for too long (and unleashed a meme of Abe’s uncomfortable facial expression). But after an election campaign in which Trump frequently criticized Japan on trade issues and accused the country of not paying enough for its military defense, he assured Japan that the relationship between the two countries “runs very, very deep,” and showed a deference to Abe that belied his previous remarks.
Before the visit last week, some in the Japanese media had gibed Abe for his apparent eagerness to foster a friendship with Trump, and some joked that the U.S. president would take advantage of the Japanese leader during their bout of golf diplomacy at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. But in a Kyodo News poll taken after the meeting, 70 percent of the Japanese public said they were satisfied with the talks between the two leaders, and Abe’s approval ratings rose slightly from a month earlier to close to 62 percent.
“In a basic sense, Prime Minister Abe got almost everything he wanted,” said Fumiaki Kubo, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo. Trump’s statements in a joint news conference with Abe were “totally different from what he has been saying about Japan since the 1980s,” Kubo said. “That is surprising as well as remarkable. In a sense he showed us, including the American public, that he is capable of changing his position on such an important issue as Japan.”
Trump, who as a candidate and president-elect assailed Japan as one of the countries that “do not pay us” for defense and repeatedly called for an “America First” economy, ended up thanking the people of Japan for hosting U.S. troops and called for a trading relationship “that is free, fair and reciprocal, benefiting both of our countries.”
Perhaps most significant to the Japanese, Trump promised that the United States was “committed to the security of Japan and all areas under its administrative control,” a reference to the U.S. guarantee to defend Japan in any confrontation with China over disputed islands, known in Japan as the Senkaku and in China as the Diaoyu, in the East China Sea.
The remarks drew swift criticism from China, where an editorial in the overseas edition of People’s Daily, an official newspaper of the Communist Party, said Abe had made a “fetish” of Japan’s U.S. alliance.
Abe had “exaggerated the threat from China to create momentum for America and Japan to join hands and contain China’s rise,” said the editorial, written by Su Xiaohui, a senior researcher at a state-run foreign policy think tank in Beijing.
Analysts said it was not surprising that Abe could get along so well with Trump. He was the first world leader to meet with the president-elect in November at Trump Tower in New York after the election and the second, after Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, to meet with Trump after the inauguration.
Abe has also been adept at developing relationships with other potentially difficult heads of state.
“Abe himself is just very good at dealing with strong-willed authoritarian leaders,” said Michael J. Green, a former Asia adviser to President George W. Bush and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, referring to Abe’s relationships with leaders including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
While the majority of the Japanese public approved of Abe’s meeting with Trump, there was some criticism, particularly from the left. The leader of the Japanese Communist Party, Kazuo Shii, denounced Abe for not objecting to Trump’s barring of refugees and foreign visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Others cautioned that the mercurial Trump could easily change his mind if offended, and that Abe had made himself vulnerable by seeming too eager to align himself with the U.S. president.
In an editorial, the centrist Mainichi Shimbun said that Trump might have taken a strategy of “first giving away what Japan desires and then making it impossible for Japan to turn down U.S. demands,” while Hirotoshi Sako, political news editor of the Asahi Shimbun, wrote that “not being able to voice views that may run counter to the will of the other side cannot equate to a mature bilateral relationship.”
Some analysts said that by pursuing a close friendship with Trump, Abe was betraying the moral foundation of the alliance that has endured since the end of World War II.
“The idea was that the United States is really the standard-bearer of the liberal international order,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Now, obviously with Trump there’s a very big question mark whether the American commitments to these so-called shared values remain the same.”
From a strategic security standpoint, Japan may have few choices other than to continue a strong alliance with the United States, given threats from North Korea, which tested a ballistic missile while Abe was still in Florida with Trump, and China, which has become more assertive in the East and South China Seas.
“What exactly are Mr. Abe’s or Japan’s options?” said Grant Newsham, senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. “What exactly is to be gained if he was to be standoffish or even pick a fight, which doesn’t take much when Mr. Trump’s involved? Japan, really, by itself, cannot handle the security problems in Asia.”
Trump may also be coming to realize that with a rising China, Japan is the best U.S. ally in Asia.
“The logical conclusion is that, from the strategic point of view, Japan and the United States are still in full sync,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat now teaching at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.
Before the U.S. election, the Japanese government had clearly preferred Hillary Clinton to Trump. But now that Trump is the president, some analysts believe he could inadvertently help Abe’s ambitions to strengthen Japan’s military and increase defense spending
Although he has been assiduous about currying favor with Trump, Abe has also pursued a program of diplomacy throughout Southeast Asia, visiting countries like the Philippines and Vietnam in recent months.
One Achilles’ heel: South Korea. Relations between Tokyo and Seoul are fraught after Japan recalled its envoy to South Korea last month to protest a statue commemorating Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Analysts said that South Korea is Japan’s most important ally in the region.
“It’s so close and bigger than all of them, except India,” Green said. For Japan, he said, South Korea remains “a blind spot.”