Sheila Smith on Abe-Trump Bilateral Relations

Sheila A. Smith, an expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy, is senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). She is the author of Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power (forthcoming April 2019 from Harvard University Press), Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China (Columbia University Press, 2015), which was released in Japanese as 日中 親愛なる宿敵: 変容する日本政治と対中政策 (Tokyo University Press, 2018), and Japan's New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance (Council on Foreign Relations, June 2014). She is also the author of the interactive website, “Constitutional Change in Japan,” which will be launched on in March 2019. Smith is vice chair of the U.S. advisors to the U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON), a bi-national advisory panel of government officials and private sector members. She also serves on the advisory committee for the U.S.-Japan Network for the Future program of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation. She teaches as an adjunct professor at the Asian Studies Department of Georgetown University and serves on the board of its Journal of Asian Affairs. She earned her MA and PhD degrees from the department of political science at Columbia University.

Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe has recently declined to comment on whether he nominated U.S. President Donald Trump for a Nobel Prize. How does this choice play into the larger story of Abe’s careful courting of Washington?

Abe has been very successful in his personal relationship with Donald Trump. He understood early on that this would be the right way to approach managing the alliance, to have that good dialogue at the top of government. He was right, in that a lot of other allies sought to emulate Mr. Abe’s approach of getting Mr. Trump to be a friend, or to cultivate his friendship. It is hard for the political leaders of Japan, because Japan has been very dependent on the United States for security since the early post-war period. Having a bad relationship with the United States is really not an option because so much depends on it. After the Nobel letter a lot of people were quite critical of Mr. Abe, but this was part of Japan’s larger strategic dependence. Mr. Abe will continue to try to have a close relationship with the President so that Japanese security interests are in the President’s mind.

Voices from within Japan-- particularly prominent individuals of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan-- have spoken out about Abe’s elusiveness surrounding the Nobel Prize nomination, criticizing him for even considering nominating Trump. Do you see moves like this negatively impacting Abe’s popularity in Japan?

I suspect that the Japanese government didn’t think the letter was going to become public, because the Nobel process is kept closed and secret. To have the president speak out like that was awkward. Certainly the momentary reaction was not positive. But it is unlikely to change the public opinion massively overall. Since the peace talks between the North Koreans and Mr. Trump in Hanoi failed, it is a particularly important time to make sure the Japanese interests are well understood by the United States. If things go really badly, and Kim Jong Un goes back to being belligerent, shooting missiles and things like that, then it is absolutely crucial that the U.S. and Japan are on the same page. Even though Mr. Abe’s critics may see this as one more reason to criticize him, it won’t undermine people’s understanding that this is the right way for Japan to proceed. It’s a dangerous time for the Japanese right now. 

How might Abe’s approach to U.S. diplomacy affect how Japan is perceived by other international players?

Mr. Abe’s larger aim is to make sure that no one in East Asia miscalculates him. For the Japanese this concerns North Korea first and foremost, but also China and Japan’s other neighbors. It is good for Japan if these countries think the U.S.-Japan alliance is strong and steady. In Europe, there is a very different response to Mr. Trump, particularly the response to the strategic dependence that the Europeans have on the U.S. You can look at other alliances and see that their leaders have taken a different approach than Mr. Abe. Japan does not have other neighbors in a multilateral organization to stand up with it. The dependency sits a bit more carefully on the Japanese shoulders. I suspect that China is very focused on its own relationship with the United States at the moment. We are waiting to see when and if a trade agreement emerges between Washington and Beijing. It is crucial that Mr. Abe and Mr. Trump reiterate once more that the U.S. military is welcome in Japan. There’s a bit of concern about the president’s announcement that major military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea are going to end. There is a lot of worry in Japan about what the United States is planning to do about the deployed U.S. forces in the region. This is a delicate time for thinking about the military balance in the region, and about how the U.S. sees its role as an ally of South Korea and Japan. I am not sure where China is on these issues at the moment, given the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and China.

How does the North Korean factor influence Prime Minister Abe’s approach to his relationship with Trump?

When President Trump was inaugurated, Prime Minister Abe was the second state leader to visit him in February of 2017. They had a meeting, they got on Air Force One, and they went to Mar-a-Lago. Everybody was focused on that part of the visit, but it’s also important to remember that this is the time that North Korea decided to launch short range missiles in the direction of Japan. In a way, the U.S.-Japan alliance had to respond to North Korea very early on. Mr. Abe had to have a press conference because he was out of the country. Trump took the stage during that conference and basically said, we are behind Japan one hundred percent. From that point forward, the Japanese government has felt very sure that it has direct access to the President. The President understands Japan’s security concerns, as well as concerns about Japanese abducted citizens. The negotiations have made many people in the Japanese government somewhat uneasy about what sort of bargain Mr. Trump might make with Kim Jong Un, for example, whether he will push for complete denuclearization. There’s been some strong advocacy on the part of Tokyo during these negotiations. It was still a more welcome approach than the 2017 approach, when lots of North Korean missile tests were aimed at Japan. The region was getting very tense. The Japanese people felt that fear and vulnerability. Probably Mr. Abe would say we are in a better place today than in 2017. That being said, Japanese security concerns are broader than just the things that we talk about here in the United States. They not only want complete verifiable, dismantlement of North Korean nuclear missiles, they also want some kind of containment or reversal of the progress the North Koreans have made on short range missiles. The Japanese don’t have their own missiles, so they rely on the United States to retaliate and deter North Korean aggression. What happens to North Korea at these talks means a great deal to Japanese security down the road.

What other geopolitical or economic concerns are motivating Abe’s careful cultivation of Tokyo’s relationship with Washington?

I wrote a book about Japan’s response to a rising China. That concern hasn’t gone away. The diplomacy today is much more regularized between Tokyo and Beijing than it was when I was writing the book. There was a real breakdown in diplomacy between those two powers for years. We have come a bit away from that. The tensions have been reduced. We’ve seen many visits and meeting between them and a general warming of the diplomatic relationship at the leadership level. Xi Jinping is expected to visit Japan once, if not twice this year. There’s still a strategic concern, though, about China’s rise and the future of the region. Japan cannot go it alone against an ever more powerful China and so the US-Japan relationship becomes all the more important.

Are there Japanese concerns that Trump has failed to take into consideration in dealing with North Korea?

That requires that we know what the president is taking into consideration. We don’t actually know what happens behind closed doors, and that is part of Japan’s concern, and the South Koreans as well. The United States is negotiating not only on behalf of itself but also its allies. There are three pieces of the puzzle. Two we’ve talked about already, which are standing firm on denuclearization and missile production and capabilities. These are both high on Japan’s list. The third is the Japanese abductees, the citizens that were kidnapped largely in the 1970s, but some more recently. These are people who have gone missing, many of whom the government knows, or the North Koreans have acknowledged, were abducted by the North Korean regime. There are several waves of Japanese who immigrated voluntarily to North Korea in the 1950s. They married people of North Korean descent, and went there voluntarily to live. There are spouses, the abductees, and another group that we aren’t quite sure about yet, who could just be globally missing. Hence, there was a long list of missing Japanese people that Tokyo had been asking the Kim Jong Il regime to find their whereabouts. Kim Jong Il did account for some of them, who then returned to Japan. That was a high moment in Japanese diplomacy. But there are still many people unaccounted for. This is a politically sensitive issue because the families of these people are still hoping that they will come home. There is no evidence as to whether or not these people have died. But the politically sensitive point is whether the Japanese government is doing all it can to make sure that the North Korean regime cooperates on this issue. The Trump administration has said openly to Prime Minister Abe that it would advocate on Japan’s behalf. But to be honest, I suspect that once they heard the president’s statement at the end of the Hanoi talks, they may have been less confident. After the Hanoi talks fell apart, Prime Minister Abe said openly that he would now have to deal directly with Kim Jong Un on the abductee issue. I am not sure if that’s because he believes the president did not advocate forcefully enough or because he feels that the breakdown of the talks means a direct Tokyo-Pyongyang conversation is what is needed in the months ahead. That’s the one issue where the domestic politics in Japan can be sensitive. It concerns the wellbeing and whereabouts of Japan’s citizens, so as Japan’s political leader that is a very high priority.


Malea Martin CMC '19Student Journalist

Featured Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *