Key Drivers for the Abe-Trump Summit: Mar-a-Lago, Round Two

President Trump is scheduled to host Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan at his Mar-a-Lago club next week for a summit meeting on U.S.-Japan relations. This will be their third bilateral summit, building on a previous session at Mar-a-Lago in February 2017 and the president’s visit to Japan last November. The two leaders have bonded over a mutual interest in golf and might hit the links to further their close personal ties. That dynamic will prove critically important as differing perspectives on North Korea strategy and economic issues could generate elements of friction in the relationship at a time when Abe wants to demonstrate his diplomatic bona fides amid political turmoil at home.

Q1: What does Abe hope to achieve on North Korea?

A1: The Japanese government put on a brave face in response to President Trump’s proposed meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but it is quietly anxious that the president might be tempted to announce an agreement with Kim that would leave Japan exposed diplomatically and Abe vulnerable politically. Abe has stated that he will ask Trump to seek the elimination of all DPRK missiles that could reach Japan and has warned that an agreement that only leads to a freeze of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) aimed at the United States would undermine Japan’s own security. Abe will also likely caution Trump not to place value on North Korean statements that Kim is ready to discuss “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” since Pyongyang has always interpreted this as meaning that the United States must first end its nuclear umbrella over Japan and South Korea. In addition, Abe will likely urge caution over any North Korean proposal for a peace treaty—which in Japanese eyes would signal U.S. acceptance of a nuclear North Korea unless accompanied by concrete and verifiable dismantlement of nuclear weapons and missile programs—or Four-Party Talks, which have been reportedly proposed by China and would exclude Japan (in the 1990s, the Four-Party Talks included the two Koreas, the United States, and China). On the whole, the Japanese side sees little upside to the Trump-Kim summit. One exception might be the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by the North (17 in total, of whom 5 were returned to Japan and 8 were reported dead by the North). U.S. officials have signaled that the president will raise the abductee issue with Kim, and a commitment to that end in the Abe-Trump summit would be a win for Japan. Japanese national security adviser Shotaro Yachi met with John Bolton on Thursday to encourage continued pressure on the North, a view the new U.S. national security adviser likely shares. Tokyo is less certain about how the president views the summitry with the North, and Abe’s visit will therefore be critical.

Q2: What will be on the economic agenda for the talks?

A2: On economic issues, the Trump administration’s decision not to exempt Japan from its Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum imports came in spite of Abe’s efforts to cultivate a close personal relationship with President Trump. Abe may raise this issue with Trump and request an exemption from the steel and aluminum tariffs. However, he will not want to be drawn into a negotiation over market access for U.S. agriculture and automobile exports to Japan, issues that Trump has repeatedly complained about in public . Nor will Abe want to engage seriously on the notion of a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), an idea that U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer and other administration officials have raised since the beginning of the administration. In the wake of Japan’s nonexclusion from the Section 232 tariffs, Japanese officials have been even more vocal in resisting the idea of an FTA. In comments to the Diet on March 28, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso said that the Abe government would “definitely avoid” a bilateral trade deal with the United States and that negotiations would only create “unnecessary” pain for Japan. Abe may take advantage of favorable comments from Trump on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to welcome the idea of the United States’ rejoining the agreement. Abe is also likely to offer to join the U.S. administration in challenging China’s unfair trade practices and urge Trump to step up joint work on high-quality infrastructure and other efforts to respond to Beijing’s assertive economic diplomacy.

Q3: Why is this summit meeting important for Abe politically?

A3: Abe has been stung by recent political scandals centered on alleged cronyism in his administration. In one case, suspicions of favoritism surround the discounted purchase of state-owned land by a conservative school in Osaka with connections to Abe’s wife, and recent parliamentary hearings on the issue revealed that Finance Ministry officials altered several documents related to the deal. Abe has denied that he or his wife intervened in that case, and he also denies having given preferential treatment to a friend who established a new veterinary school in a special economic zone, though reports have surfaced indicating a former special assistant to Abe told local government officials that the proposal was a priority for the prime minister. Abe’s approval rating has dropped to about 40 percent in recent public opinion surveys, and those polls also suggest potential rivals in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party are gaining momentum in the lead-up to an election for party president this September. (The president of the ruling party serves as prime minister.) Abe would like to run for a third consecutive three-year term, but there is speculation that he might have to bow out should the fallout from these scandals persist.

The cronyism scandals first surfaced a year ago, but Abe engineered a landslide victory in a general election last October in part because the public recognized his leadership on national security issues in the face of the increased threat from North Korea and concerns about China’s rise. Abe has worked hard to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance in that context and skillfully navigated the U.S. political transition last year to cultivate close personal ties with President Trump as a foundation for bilateral ties. The Japanese public is used to seeing the two leaders getting along, first during a meeting in Trump Tower in November 2016 and in subsequent meetings since then. But this third summit will take place amid uncertainty about the degree to which Abe and Trump are strategically aligned on North Korea and trade policy. Bonhomie on the golf course will generate good optics, but Abe wants to return home with concrete evidence that the relationship has stayed out of the rough. The stakes are high for Abe’s foreign policy agenda and potentially his political future.

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Matthew P. Goodman is William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy and senior adviser for Asian economics at CSIS. Victor Cha is senior adviser and Korea Chair at CSIS. Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Japan Chair at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Matthew P. Goodman

Matthew P. Goodman

Former Senior Vice President for Economics
Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair