Japan Fears Being Sidelined by Trump on Trade and North Korea

Mr. Abe hoped to secure Mr. Trump’s commitment on two issues: curtailing the North’s nuclear and ballistic weapons programs, and facilitating the return of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and ’80s.

On Wednesday in Tokyo, critics were skeptical that Mr. Trump would give Japan much consideration once he got into a room with Mr. Kim.

“The possibility of the U.S. thinking about Japan is zero,” said Terry Ito, a commentator on Nippon Television, from Tokyo.

Japan Fears Being Sidelined by Trump on Trade and North Korea
Japan Fears Being Sidelined by Trump on Trade and North Korea

There was a sense in Tokyo on Tuesday that Japan has been sidelined as Mr. Trump cultivates relationships elsewhere in Asia. Though sitting next to Mr. Abe at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump spent nearly as much time effusively praising China’s president, Xi Jinping, as “incredibly generous” and “a very special person to me” as he did discussing Japan.

Mr. Trump is “certainly not approaching this summit from the perspective of ‘Japan is one of our most important allies and how do I keep this relationship strong,’” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat and now a speechwriter in Washington.


Shigeo Iizuka, center, the brother of a Japanese citizen abducted by North Korea, has implored Mr. Abe, right, for help with returning such victims. Mr. Abe has asked Mr. Trump to bring up the abductions in an upcoming meeting with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader.Credit Pool photo by Toru Hanai

It might also be a sign that Mr. Trump tends to lump countries in the region together. In a tweet posted Tuesday night, Mr. Trump signaled he was no longer interested in rejoining the TransPacific Partnership, a multicountry trade deal strongly supported by Japan.

Mr. Trump wrote: “While Japan and South Korea would like us to go back into TPP, I don’t like the deal for the United States.” But South Korea is not currently a party to the agreement.

Mr. Trump’s reversal on the trade deal, less than a week after he suggested the United States could enter the pact, reinforced the view that he sees Japan’s interests as expendable.

The leaders’ meeting in Florida comes at a time when Mr. Abe needs a political bounce, as domestic scandals have driven approval ratings for his cabinet down as low as 27 percent, according to one poll. Mr. Abe is now even less popular than Mr. Trump.

As a world leader who has consistently maintained a strong personal relationship with Mr. Trump, Mr. Abe arrived at Mar-a-Lago with the burden of high expectations.

“The consequence of Prime Minister Abe looking so effective with President Trump in previous summits,” said Mr. Oba, the speechwriter, “is that he has a higher level from which to fall.”

Mr. Abe, however, managed one small victory: A verbal commitment from Mr. Trump that he would bring up the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean spies during his meeting with Mr. Kim.

Newsletter Sign Up

Continue reading the main story

Thank you for subscribing.

An error has occurred. Please try again later.

You are already subscribed to this email.

View all New York Times newsletters.

The kidnappings resonate strongly with the Japanese public and Mr. Abe has made it one of his personal priorities to seek the return of the abductees.

Analysts said that Mr. Abe would most likely proclaim Mr. Trump’s commitment as a victory when he returned home, but the strategy could backfire.

“Mr. Abe will probably exaggerate his success on the abduction issue when he comes back to Japan,” said Takashi Kawakami, a national security expert at Takushoku University in Tokyo. “But it’s not enough.”

On Wednesday in Tokyo, Shigeo Iizuka, a brother of Yaeko Taguchi, one of the abducted Japanese citizens, said he wanted concrete results.


A cargo terminal in Tokyo on Wednesday. Mr. Trump on Tuesday walked back earlier comments about supporting an international trade deal that Japan has joined.Credit Kimimasa Mayama/EPA, via Shutterstock

“I want him to get a definite promise to return the Japanese citizens as well as bringing it up at the table,” Mr. Iizuka told reporters about his hopes for Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Kim. “This is the first and last chance of a lifetime, and I don’t want him to miss this chance.”

In addition to the abductees, Japan is also counting on Mr. Trump for security guarantees. One of Tokyo’s fears is that Mr. Trump might agree to a freeze in North Korea’s weapons program that would leave the country with shorter range missiles that could still reach Japan and South Korea.

For now, Japan has been left out of North Korea’s recent charm offensive.

“North Korea is now talking to the South Koreans, talking to the Chinese, and talking to the Americans, but seems to be trying to isolate Japan,” said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “So that’s another negative element or factor” for Mr. Abe.

Analysts said Mr. Trump would very likely view a commitment to bring up the abductees with Mr. Kim as a gift to Japan that warranted something in return.

With Wednesday’s talks likely to focus on trade, and Mr. Trump already indicating he was no longer interested in returning to the multilateral TPP, analysts said Mr. Abe might be forced to engage in two-way discussions as South Korea has already done.

“I fear that Japan may be pushed toward getting into talks about a bilateral agreement,” said Jun Saito, a senior research fellow at the Japan Center for Economic Research. “Mr. Abe might think that it’s better to get into some kind of negotiation rather than losing Japan’s status in regional politics.”

Mr. Abe already expended considerable domestic capital to persuade farmers — traditional supporters of his Liberal Democratic Party — to accept more foreign agricultural products as part of the TPP.

Pushing for more concessions from Japan in a bilateral deal with the United States could put Mr. Abe in an even more politically sensitive position.

“Capitulation to Trump here, I would think, would sign his political death warrant,” said Jeffrey Wilson, the head of research at the Perth USAsia Center at the University of Western Australia.

Mr. Abe’s biggest headaches still remain back in Tokyo, where he is fighting off allegations that he helped friends at two educational institutions gain preferential treatment from the government. Several leaks of tampered files and previously missing documents have deepened the scandals. Additional allegations of sexual harassment by a top official in the Ministry of Finance are also tarring the prime minister’s leadership.

Similar Posts