US President Donald Trump wrapped up his four-day state visit to Japan on Tuesday and is expected to return for the G20 Osaka summit at the end of June. It will be the first time that a US president would make two visits to the Northeast Asian nation in two consecutive months. This reflects a new development in alliance politics, bringing to the fore Japan’s hope of expanding its strategic autonomy while keeping its alliance with the US stable.
For the US, good relations with Japan will help take away from the unease of strained ties with Europe. Since Trump took office, the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Iran nuclear deal has created unprecedented tensions between the US and Europe.
At the Munich Security Conference in February, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Vice President Mike Pence traded criticism on national security and trade. Despite Pence alleging that the US’ European allies violated US sanctions on Iran, Merkel was assertive about wanting to preserve the Iran nuclear deal. She also pushed back against Pence’s rebukes on Nord Stream 2.
As for trade, Merkel scoffed at US allegations that German carmaker BMW represented a threat to US national security, stressing that the Bavarian car giant’s largest plant was in the US.
As cross-Atlantic relations worsen, doubts inevitably arise about Trump’s approach to diplomacy. Strengthening the alliance with Asian countries will help alleviate this pressure. Trump’s two visits to Japan further show the solid relationship between the US and Asia. To attenuate the effect of a rift with Europe, the US may push Japan to make new commitments, which can help Trump’s reelection.
For Japan, the visit serves several purposes in domestic and foreign policy. First, Trump is the first world leader to meet with Japan’s new emperor, which highlights that the country’s alliance with the US remains its diplomatic cornerstone. The media’s massive coverage on the golf game between Trump and Abe and the Abe administration’s Izakaya diplomacy makes the Japanese feel that the administration is doing his due job.
Second, the meeting with Trump provided an excellent opportunity for the new emperor and empress to make their debut at international events. Chinese ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua became the first diplomat to meet the new Japanese emperor, and Trump the first foreign leader to meet the monarch. This shows that relations among China, the US and Japan are likely to be the highlight of the emperor’s diplomacy.
At the same time, by organizing the meetings, Abe has proved his diplomatic credentials and helped cement the relationship between the government and the royal family.
Third, US relations with major powers are under strain, creating risks as well as significant strategic opportunities for Japan. Therefore, when seizing the opportunity to expand the strategic space for diplomacy, Tokyo needs to stabilize the bond with the US.
Japan-China relations have seen rapid improvement in the past two years. However, deteriorating US-China relations may throw Japan in a dilemma. Tokyo is unwilling to see its newly improved ties with China being disrupted by the US. Thus, stable relations with the US help create more strategic autonomy for Japan in its diplomacy with China.
While advocating “a total reassessment of Japan’s postwar diplomacy,” Abe lays emphasis on the policy with Russia. This also demands close ties with the US so that Japan can maintain diplomatic independence when developing relations with Russia.
At the same time, after last year’s dramatic changes on the Korean Peninsula, Japan is the only member of the Six-Party Talks that has not actively engaged in bilateral talks with the North Korean leadership.
However, Trump’s efforts to solve the abduction issue and renew talks between Japan and North Korea will help the Abe administration deflect criticism of its policy toward North Korea.
According to media reports, Abe has strongly recommended Trump as a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Behind this lies Japan’s intention of expecting support from the US on its stance on Russia and North Korea.
Fourth, consolidating the Japan-US alliance helps Tokyo expand its diplomatic footprint, allowing it to play a role in major international issues. After summit talks with Abe, Trump said at a press conference that nobody wanted to see terrible things happen in Iran, while Abe suggested Japan would play a role in promoting regional peace and stability. When Abe mentioned his plan to visit Iran during their summit talks, it seemed that Trump agreed to let Japan mediate. If Abe successfully visits Iran, Japan’s international presence will get a fillip at the upcoming G20 summit. And it also means that Japan will begin participating in major international affairs with a newfound standing.