With uncertainty afflicting Europe on three fronts – over Brexit, relations with Russia and the future of the transatlantic alliance – it is easy to forget that similar uncertainty plagues other parts of the world, with potentially more immediate and more lethal effects. North Korea’s firing of a missile halfway across the Sea of Japan, at the very time when the Japanese Prime Minister was being hosted by the new US President, offered a salutary case in point. Let no one talk of North Korea as the “hermit kingdom”; Kim Jong-un is looking out and responding to what he observes.
And what he will have observed in recent weeks is the arrival on the scene of a tough-talking but untried US President, and a Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who acted at once, and very personally, to register his country and its concerns on the new President’s global map. The missile launch was North Korea’s “look at me” response.
Donald Trump may have a preference for dealing with other countries, whether in trade or geopolitics, one on one – as perhaps his business career has taught him. But the world is connected in all sorts of ways, and in few places are the regional dynamics as sensitive as in this part of Asia. North Korea’s Kim and Japan’s Abe are contemplating the same question – an imminent, unknown and potentially destabilising change in US foreign policy – and addressing it in their very different ways.
Having spent the past week in Tokyo, I came away with two distinct impressions. The first is the scale – the global scale – of the confusion sown by the unforeseen victory of Donald Trump. This is a new world, where old verities and old ways of doing things may not apply. On the other hand, they may. No one knows. Everyone is seeking clues as to where this US administration might go, desperate to find some sure footing in what feels like shifting sand.
The other is the degree to which Shinzo Abe has taken what in the staid world of diplomacy looks like quite a risk in order to protect Japan’s interests, and how well – so far – his calculation has paid off. There are parallels with the efforts made by the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, in the direction of Washington, but significant differences, too.
One big difference concerns domestic opinion. May’s rush to be first to the White House was seen in some British quarters as undignified, confirming only the disparity in the “special relationship”. Controversy continued with May’s ill-judged first response to Trump’s travel ban and the controversy surrounding plans for an early state visit.
Abe has few such worries. The implications of Trump’s victory may be preoccupying Japan’s government and diplomatic circles, but Trump himself attracts nothing like the personal opprobrium he draws in much of Europe. Abe’s ratings anyway depend far more on the economy (which is showing an upturn) than on when, where and how he meets Donald Trump. The uncomplicated view from Tokyo is that it is more about the office than the man.
For Japan, the Abe-Trump talks this past weekend served only to confirm the country’s status as the most important US ally in Asia. The trip to Florida and the golf were a bonus. Then again, Trump’s promises to take a hard line towards China offer another, less openly acknowledged reason for the equanimity, even enthusiasm, with which Japan has accepted President Trump.
Where a comparison with May’s visit is particularly instructive, however, is in the strategic dimension. The UK Prime Minister took advantage of a prior speaking engagement in Philadelphia to make a short detour to Washington. Maybe the visit was intended as part of a longer term, Brexit-related plan, but the calculation looked more short term.
Shinzo Abe’s visit, on the other hand, belonged in a larger context. In fact, it was his third trip to the US in as many months. Just 10 days after Trump’s election, the Japanese Prime Minister defied protocol to make a flying visit to the President-elect in New York. He was rewarded with a warm public handshake and a firm commitment by the President-elect to continue the US guarantee of Japan’s security.
In late December, Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to visit Pearl Harbour officially (as opposed to privately), where he commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack alongside outgoing President Obama. This marked the symbolic ending of a particular chapter in US-Japan relations that included – for all the close security ties of recent years – the still-resented internment of Japanese Americans. It allowed for something of a fresh start.
On his latest visit this past weekend, Abe was accompanied by his wife, senior ministers and a fleet of advisers. The proceedings dominated Japan’s media and were seen as advancing the new entente. As seen from Japan, though, the visit was not just about bilateral relations; Abe was stepping out on the global scene in a way he had not really done before.
Japan’s Prime Minister enjoys several advantages over other leaders in dealing with Donald Trump. One is the confidence that comes from being the scion of a prominent political family. There is also his experience of high office – he is prime minister for the second time – and his almost unchallenged position at home. His manner has nothing of the supplicant.
But Abe, officials note, is now among the most seasoned figures in the wider world. He has been in office longer than any national leader in the G7, barring Angela Merkel, whose freedom of manoeuvre is circumscribed by Germany’s autumn election. France faces elections in the spring; in every other G7 country – the UK, Italy, Canada and the US – there have been relatively recent changes of power.
The same applies in Asia. Xi Jinping might seem dominant in Beijing, but China is in the throes of preparations for a party congress, with all the jockeying for policies and position that entails. Abe is also unusual in managing to get along reasonably with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Abe thus wields more authority, not just at home, but abroad, than any Japanese leader in recent years – or could do if he chose to exert it. The question is will he, and if so, how?
Like Germany – and for similar reasons – Japan prefers not to push itself forward. Trump’s oft-stated suspicion of Beijing, though, presents Abe with a chance at once to enhance Japan’s own security and lead a regional bloc that would offset China’s growing power – under, of course, a US umbrella. If this is where Abe’s ambitions lie, North Korea’s missile could hardly have been fired at a more opportune time.
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