Beyond the Awkward Handshake
With the Trump Administration in disarray due to Michael Flynn's resignation, Labor Secretary Nominee Andrew Puzder's withdrawal, and Trump's controversial travel ban, some promising news for this new administration would be welcome. On the Weekend of February 10th, Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, met with President Trump in a long awaited meeting to discuss bilateral relations between the two nations.
While the media focused on the awkward moment between Abe and Trump where they shook hands for the camera, many seemed to stray away from the positive developments that came out of the meeting between the two leaders. Topics that were discussed included increasing US commitment to the defense treaty between the two nations, security threats from China and North Korea, and bilateral trade, particularly Japanese companies investing in the US. What was initially thought to be a tense meeting over issues that Trump brought up on the campaign trail, ended up being largely productive and reassuring to the Japanese people that the US has not abandoned them and will stand steadfast with their regional ally.
One of the biggest topics at hand was the issue of Trump's campaign comments about forcing Japan to pay more than they already do for US defense aid. This was quickly resolved as Trump set aside any notion of these former statements.
Furthermore, The Trump Administration officially included the disputed Senkaku Islands as part of Japanese territory covered in Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty. This had followed Secretary of Defense James Mattis's visit last week to Japan assuring the US's commitment to the US-Japan Security treaty. All of this is coinciding with Japan’s ramping up of its own military as well as an increase in its participation in training exercises with other nations and naval patrols in the region. This in turn will decrease the economic burden on the US Military as Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) begin to take over certain functions that the US is currently responsible for.
On the Economic front, Japan has introduced an economic package hoping to please President Trump, which includes investments to create 700,000 jobs via display maker Sharp's announcement that it may build a $7 billion plant in the US. In addition to this, discussions between Abe and Trump about the establishment of a Japanese-style high speed rail were part of the agenda. Trump has pledged a $1 trillion investment in US infrastructure and has expressed a desire to improve the conditions of roads, bridges, airports, and passenger trains. In the meeting, Abe said that Japanese technology could cut the travel time between DC and New York from three hours to only one.
During the weekend of the meeting, a perfectly timed missile test was conducted by North Korea, likely as a provocation to test the resolve of the new relationship between the two leaders. The missile itself flew 300 miles (500 km) towards the sea of Japan. It reached an altitude of 350 miles (550 km). This launch is yet another sign of North Korea's provocation to its neighbors in the region.
After the test, Abe and Trump made a joint statement condemning the launch. Trump assured Abe that the US would “stand behind Japan, its great ally, 100%.” This statement was another confirmation to Japan in ensuring its protection under the US security umbrella. Whether North Korea acts on its threats or whether this is just another case of its typical grandstanding and saber-rattling is yet to be seen. However the former is the likely case. In addition to that, there is still a lack of consensus among US intelligence as to whether the reclusive state is capable of miniaturizing a nuclear warhead on a rocket. Whatever the case, the Trump Administration has seemed to be dedicated to holding North Korea accountable for its actions.
Another development that came up before the meeting was Trump's phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In an apparent change from previous statements about not adhering to the One China Policy following his phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing Wen, Trump publicly announced his decision to continue with US recognition of the policy. This is mostly a symbolic gesture and will change very little the relationship between the countries. However, it continues to give China leverage over the international community in regards to the status of Taiwan. This is something that Trump had begun to challenge, but backtracked before this meeting. It may have come out of the urging by his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other advisors, who most likely believe that moving forward with the US's prickly relationship with China would have to begin with recognition of the One China Policy, even if that means confronting China on other issues. Prime Minister Abe and his government also officially recognize the One China Policy, as they are also playing a delicate game with China.
Lastly, this meeting is preceding the upcoming discussions in April between Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Vice President Mike Pence, who will discuss bilateral trade and economic cooperation. Likely to be on the table is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which Japan was very much in favor of as an economic counterweight to Chinese influence in the region. Pence himself was also at one point a supporter of the TPP.
His demeanor and calm headed approach will most likely be taken positively by the Japanese in these upcoming negotiations. While the Trump-Abe meeting is a positive symbolic gesture towards strong relations between the US and Japan, the meeting between Pence and Aso will be much more policy oriented and geared towards establishing stronger economic ties, especially in times where China's actions has had many in the region seriously concerned.
The meeting between Prime Minister Abe and President Trump is promising. While Trump has hit a snag with the leaders of other nations such as Australia and Mexico, he seems to be ensuring the strength of the relationship between the US and Japan. This relationship is vital to security and stability in the region, as China's military expansionist ambitions aren't receding, but growing more bold.
The new relationship between The Trump Administration and the Abe Government is off to a good start. The next meeting between Pence and Aso will be pivotal in further developing relations between the two nations. Time will tell how this all pans out.