February 16, 2017 10:00 am JST

Editorial: Leaders' rapport can help Japan, US start over

Abe must be firm but flexible in dealing with Trump administration's demands

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump held their first official meeting since Trump took office in January, and the two leaders agreed to establish a new round of dialogue to deepen bilateral economic relations. Even as the U.S. side avoided taking this opportunity to make tough new demands in the area of trade, none of Japan's major concerns has been put to rest yet. The hope is that the two governments will move forward with negotiations by taking advantage of the good relationship of trust forged between Abe and Trump.

The temporary entry ban against citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, a forceful action taken by Trump's administration without advance notice, has come under fire abroad as well as within the U.S. For the Japanese government, sidling up to the Trump regime amid such circumstances has its pros and cons. In the view of some experts, Tokyo would be wiser to stick with a wait-and-see approach for a while.

In reality, however, it is hard for Japan, which is heavily reliant on the U.S. military for its national security, to keep its distance from the incumbent U.S. government. Consequently, it made sense for Abe to seek to establish a personal relationship of trust.

What is important is how best to use the good relationship with the new U.S. administration. Abe and Trump agreed to set up a framework of dialogue on economic matters that is to be led by Taro Aso, the Japanese deputy prime minister and finance minister, and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. But if the framework forcibly incorporates Japan into a mechanism for responding to the demands of the U.S., it may raise the question of whether Abe's "golf diplomacy," which included an actual round of golf with Trump at a Florida course, has done any good for Japan at all.

In the joint statement released after their summit, the duo vowed to promote discussions of a "bilateral framework" while acknowledging the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As of the present, however, it is not clear whether the phrase is meant to include a Japan-U.S. free trade agreement.

The TPP deal, signed by 12 countries including the U.S., set forth new global standards for trade and investment rules. Japan still needs to persistently try to convince the Trump administration of the TPP's significance.

At the same time, Japan does not need to spurn the possibility of entering an FTA with the U.S. before seeing how things go. The bilateral pact could serve as a milestone for creating a free trade zone encompassing the entire Asia-Pacific region. It is to be hoped that Japan and the U.S. will open-heartedly discuss every possible measure to expand trade and investment between the two countries as well as in the Asia-Pacific region.

GIVE AND TAKE   Up until now, Trump has repeatedly attacked Japan's trade surplus with the U.S., claiming that Japan's markets are closed. During Abe's visit to the U.S., Trump refrained from bluntly criticizing Japan. But Abe's government cannot have an overly optimistic view of what happens going forward.

The Trump administration is likely to apply pressure on Japanese automakers to offer more jobs and increase American output. It may possibly even urge Japanese manufacturers to curb exports to the U.S.

Japan must firmly rebut any unreasonable demands from the U.S. government. Meanwhile, however, Japan needs to come up with flexible and resourceful measures and ideas -- such as ramping up cooperation in the fields of infrastructure and energy -- in order to prevent conflicts in specific industrial areas from sparking a deterioration of Japan-U.S. economic relations in general.

A cause for concern is Trump's perceptions of how things are going in the foreign exchange market. There are fears that his government will again accuse Japan of purposely guiding the yen lower, even as Japan has not intervened against its currency for the past five years. Tokyo should continue to assert its stance by seizing such opportunities as the Japan-U.S. dialogues.

On the national security front, the two leaders clearly affirmed that the Japan-U.S. security treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu Islands. At a time when the new U.S. government is seen as less willing to be involved in regional affairs than previous U.S. governments, it is a bright point that the Trump administration has reaffirmed its engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. The stance shown by the Trump regime will serve as a check against Beijing's ambitions to establish a greater presence in the area.

Abe has shown his enthusiasm for letting Japan "play a greater role" in regional security. His government should explain, plainly, what it wants to do in practical terms to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Abe must avoid making any deals with the U.S. that seek to settle bilateral trade and security issues by, for instance, compromising on an issue in one field as a bargaining chip to solve an issue in another field. An opaque deal of such a nature, drawing skepticism from both Japanese people and Americans, will end up failing to work.

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