Japanese PM Shinzo Abe can no longer rely on his good personal relationship with US President Donald Trump when the two leaders meet in Florida. A number of issues can make or break the partnership. Martin Fritz reports.
Abe's meeting with Trump at the latter's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida comes at a challenging time, as the Japanese premier is confronting a series of domestic scandals and international policy divisions.
Abe's approval ratings have declined to a record low of under 30 percent in some polls as the Japanese leader has been hit by accusations of nepotism and the mishandling of official documents by several ministries.
The scandals have called into question Abe's chances of securing a third term as party leader this September, which seemed assured earlier this year, and could even force him to step down before the leadership race.
Meanwhile, in two critical areas, Japan is uncomfortable with the positions adopted by the Trump administration. Firstly, the US president seems to have suddenly made a U-turn and given up his hardline stance, which Abe always backed, against North Korea. Trump surprised Abe, and much of the world, when he announced that he would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. That summit is expected in May or early June.
Japan fears that its interests may be given short shrift and Abe therefore wants to make sure Trump doesn't cut a deal with Kim that leaves Japan exposed to shorter-range missiles that do not threaten the US mainland.
Another issue troubling Japan are the tariffs the US imposed on steel and aluminum imports into the country. Unlike the EU, South Korea and other security partners of the US, Japan hasn't been exempted from the tariffs.
A meeting ‘without script'
This double blow came as a surprise to Abe: Since Trump became president, more than any other foreign politician, the Japanese PM had sought closer friendship with the US leader. The two have met five times and talked to each other 20 times so far. Abe has never issued a critical statement about Trump. And on the golf course, the two have been best buddies.
As a consequence of Trump's policy shifts, Abe has lost some confidence in his relationship with Trump, reported Japanese business newspaper Nikkei, adding that Abe is expecting an "all-or-nothing" meeting in Florida for which there is no script. Last week, during several hours of "study sessions" with specialist civil servants, the prime minister acted out several scenarios for his talks with Trump.
Ostensibly, North Korea is at the top of the agenda. Although it's unlikely that there will be any let up in the international sanctions imposed against the North Korean regime for the time being, Tokyo is concerned that its interests may be neglected in the event of an understanding between North Korea and the US.
"Japan is the only neighboring country that is not part of the diplomatic efforts for dialogue with North Korea," the liberal newspaper Asahi said.
Abe therefore wants to ask Trump to raise the issue of Japanese abductees, who were kidnapped decades ago by the Pyongyang regime, during the US leader's proposed meeting with Kim. Trump will probably fulfil this request.
Tough talk on trade
Another difficult topic of discussion is trade. On Thursday, Trump, in a tweet, reaffirmed the need for Japanese concessions on this front. On the following day, the US Treasury Department put Japan on a watch list of states with "unfair currency practices" and criticized the continuing large US trade deficit with Japan.
As a result, trade and currency policies are likely to be a major subject of discussion during the Abe-Trump meeting, particularly as the US agricultural lobby pushes for greater access to the Japanese market.
Out of consideration for voters in farming states, President Trump reaffirmed last week that the US could return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — the ambitious free trade agreement of the Pacific Rim countries negotiated by President Barack Obama's administration — if there was a "substantial improvement" for the US.
So far, Japan has reacted cautiously to this statement, as it could eventually require further concessions on quotas and tariffs.
A difficult spot
Abe instead wants to promise more Japanese direct investment in the US and propose a new format for trade talks. At the same time, the Japanese leader wants to persuade Trump to lift the punitive tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
Trump, however, sees a link between tariffs and trade agreements. South Korea offers a good example here, as only a few weeks ago the government in Seoul buckled under US pressure and offered to let more US cars into the country and export less steel to the US. As a result, it received an exemption from the punitive duties.
Japan's Finance Minister Taro Aso recently rejected a bilateral trade deal with the US, having played for time in several rounds of talks with US Vice President Mike Pence. As a result, Abe is in a difficult position in Florida because he does not want to accept new TPP negotiations, or even bilateral negotiations. "Therefore, Japan will be more likely to accept punitive tariffs than to start bilateral free trade talks," tweeted Tobias Harris, Japan analyst at consultancy Teneo Intelligence.