Special Briefing: A Crossroads in the US-Japan 'Special Relationship'

Special Briefing: A Crossroads in the US-Japan 'Special Relationship'

By OZY Editors

U.S. President Donald Trump greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he arrives for talks at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 17, 2018.


Japan’s Shinzo Abe has taken great pains to befriend Donald Trump — but he has yet to get much in return.

By OZY Editors

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.


What happened? Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. On the agenda: a range of important issues, including tariffs, trade, China and North Korea’s nuclear program. Trump and Abe appeared before reporters Tuesday, where the U.S. leader affirmed that the two nations “have never been closer than they are right now.” The statement came amid news reports that Trump sent C.I.A. director Mike Pompeo to North Korea for secret meetings in advance of his own summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — a meeting that could have serious ramifications for Japan.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives for talks with U.S. President Donald Trump at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 17, 2018.


Why does it matter? Abe’s second visit to Trump’s “Winter White House” comes at a critical juncture in U.S.–Japanese relations and his own troubled premiership back home. While the two leaders enjoy a strong rapport, Trump’s recent actions, from renewing diplomatic efforts with North Korea to leaving Japan off a list of allies being exempted from new tariffs, has Japan — America’s strongest ally in Asia — feeling marginalized.


They’re watching back home. Abe’s visit to America comes as he remains embattled in Japan, with an approval rating below 30 percent. That’s largely the result of a scandal involving special government treatment of a private school with links to him and his wife and an attempted cover-up. Tens of thousands protested Abe outside of Japan’s parliament this month, and nearly half of Japanese voters now think he should resign. His Liberal Democratic Party’s next leadership election is this September, so Abe needs a win — and soon — or else his sixth year as prime minister could be his last.

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Protestors demonstrate against Abe after allegations of corruption, calling him to resign, on April 14, 2018, in front of the national legislature in Tokyo.

Source Richard Atrero de Guzman/NurPhoto via Getty

Dealing with North Korea … When it comes to North Korea, Japan’s long been an advocate of a hard-line approach. But President Trump’s notorious unpredictability, combined with the softer touch of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, has Tokyo worried about being sidelined in the talks, including when it comes to the medium- and short-range missiles that most threaten Japan.

… and China. Despite the difficulties over North Korea, an economically and militarily emerging China should be enough to keep Trump and Abe close. But that’s no guarantee: New U.S. tariffs could complicate things. Japan provides some 5 percent of U.S. steel, and part of trade negotiations with Abe will include getting Japan on the list of countries excluded from the steel and aluminium tariffs imposed by the White House last month.


Bilateral benefits. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership shortly after taking office, but just a few days ago mused on Twitter about the possibility of rejoining. Now he’s made another U-turn after meeting with Abe, saying, “I don’t like the deal,” and latching onto the idea of a bilateral trade agreement between the U.S. and Japan. Abe’s country has led the move forward with the now-signed TPP-11, a revised version of the agreement that could go into effect early next year … and doesn’t include the U.S.

Rest and remonstration. Five days in Mar-a-Largo — and a high-level meeting with Abe — may be a good opportunity for President Trump to get away from worsening political scandals in Washington. But some White House advisers remain concerned that the week away could provide plenty of time for Trump to speak his mind — especially on Twitter — and wreak even more havoc for his PR and diplomatic teams.


What Does Being Trump’s Friend Get You? by Uri Friedman at The Atlantic

“Nearly from the moment Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, when Abe caught a flight to New York and became the first foreign leader to meet with the president-elect, the Japanese prime minister placed a big bet: Befriending Donald would serve his nation’s interests better than antagonizing him …”

Nobody Puts Japan in the Corner, by Melodie Ha in The Diplomat

“If Japan wants to ensure the safety of its citizens and maintain its status in Northeast Asia as a regional power, it needs to reach out to its allies now before its interests are relegated.”


Hundreds Protest Against Abe Government

Protesters take to the streets in Tokyo last month to speak out against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration.

Watch on AP on YouTube:

Trump Shakes Japanese PM’s Hand for 19 Seconds

President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shared a 19-second handshake during a photo op at the White House last February.

Watch on CNN on YouTube:


Trump has promised to raise the issue of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and ’80s during his meeting with Kim Jong Un. That’s a big win for Abe, who won his last election on a tough North Korea policy.