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Opinion

Can Trump help Abe 'Make Japan great again'?

America First approach gives Abe opportunity to pursue his nationalist agenda

| Japan
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo in November

Most Japanese have been pleasantly surprised by President Donald Trump's Japan policy. Ever since the 1980s, and throughout the 2016 presidential election campaign, Trump had repeatedly denounced Japan for its "unfair" trade practices and for its "free-riding" on defense. As a result, many Japanese feared that if elected, Trump would impose tariffs or use other means to restrict Japanese exports to the U.S. and attempt, perhaps through a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), to pry open the Japanese market. On national security, the fear was that Trump would force Japan to grow its military, pay more for U.S. forces in Japan, and join the U.S. in combat operations abroad.

So far, these fears have proved to be largely unfounded, even if Japan has to date not been exempted from the tariffs Trump plans to impose on steel and aluminum imports, unlike other close allies, including the EU.

In fact, despite the pre-election rhetoric, there has been remarkable continuity in U.S. policy toward Japan between the Obama and Trump administrations. This is partly because Trump has come to realize that Japan is an indispensable ally, given the threats posed by North Korea's nuclear and missile developments, and given the growing power of China, labeled America's "strategic competitor" in the National Security Strategy unveiled last December. Trump's more than 20 phone calls so far with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- more than with any other world leader -- have all focused on how to counter the North Korean threat. This will also be the top agenda item of the Trump-Abe meeting in the U.S. scheduled for April 17 and 18.

Trump has repeatedly emphasized that U.S.-Japan economic ties must be "free, fair, and reciprocal" -- based on his belief that Japan has benefited one-sidedly from the relationship. However, given his priority on renegotiating NAFTA with Canada and Mexico and KORUS with South Korea, and given the $375 billion trade deficit he seeks to reduce with China, there is little likelihood that the Trump administration will start bilateral FTA negotiations with Japan anytime soon.

All of this provides Abe a golden opportunity to pursue his own agenda in a much freer environment than would have been possible under a Clinton administration. A prime example is Russia, where Abe's cultivation of President Vladimir Putin to conclude a peace treaty and to reclaim the Northern Territories poses little concern for Trump, who admires Putin, but would have been viewed unfavorably by Hillary Clinton.

If Abe truly wishes to achieve his long-stated ambition of sengo rejiimu kara no dakkyaku ("escaping the shackles of the postwar regime"), no American leader would be more supportive than Trump. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, in a speech at a conference in Tokyo last December, had nothing but praise for Abe, calling him a "Trump before Trump" and celebrating his drive to "reinstill the spirit of nationalism." He extolled Abe for having "talked about a nation's pride, a nation's destiny, a nation taking control of its future."

Bannon would have been proud of Abe's performance at the recent ruling Liberal Democratic Party annual convention, where he reinforced his commitment to revising Article 9 of the Constitution, sticking to his agenda despite criticisms over his handling of the Moritomo Gakuen scandal that has embroiled the government.

Among the priorities of those who, like Abe, wish to restore Japan's status as a "beautiful country" are the following: enact a new, "genuinely Japanese" constitution reflecting Japanese values to replace the current one, which is viewed as having been imposed on Japan by the U.S. Occupation authorities; instill patriotism in the schools and encourage greater deference to the state and to authority; revise textbooks to highlight Japan's accomplishments and to minimize criticisms of Japan's conduct in the 1930s and 1940s, including over such issues as the Nanking massacre and "comfort women"; reject the verdicts of the Tokyo War Crimes Trial; legitimize official visits by Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine; increase Japan's military power and offensive capabilities; and fundamentally to reclaim Japan's autonomy by dismantling the postwar American policy to "democratize and demilitarize" Japan.

Although the tendency to justify Japan's conduct in the 1930s and 1940s may not sit well with Trump or his supporters, many of the other elements of Abe's priorities are compatible with Trump's notion of putting "America first." In his speech at the APEC CEO Summit in Vietnam last November, Trump said, "I am always going to put America first the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first." By this logic, Trump may see Abe's ambition to "make Japan beautiful" as fully consistent with his own desire to "make America great again." And Abe will no doubt use this to his maximum advantage. Indeed, postwar Japanese prime ministers have been astute in their use of "pressure" from the U.S. to help them achieve their own domestic agendas.

Assuming that Abe is reelected this September to a third three-year term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, he could remain as prime minister until the fall of 2021. Including the one year (2006-2007) he previously served as prime minister, this would mean he will have spent more time in office -- 10 years -- than any prime minister in Japanese history since Hirobumi Ito first assumed the position in 1885.

When there is a high turnover of prime ministers, as in 2006 to 2012 -- when there were six prime ministers in six years -- the bureaucrats gain power by providing continuity, stability, expertise and institutional memory. However, when a prime minister stays in office for more than three or four years, the accumulation of power in the Prime Minister's Office can be formidable, especially when, as in the case of Abe, there is a strong determination to do so.

Public support for Abe dipped in March because of allegations that LDP politicians, including Abe himself, may have pressured the Ministry of Finance to sell public land in the Osaka region at cut-rate prices to Moritomo Gakuen, a nationalist school which at one point had as its honorary principal Abe's wife, Akie. But by throwing the entire responsibility to the Ministry of Finance -- which has admitted to fabricating documents it submitted to the Diet -- Abe shows every sign of riding out the latest twists in the affair that first erupted over a year ago.

For instance, a Kyodo poll released on April 1 taken just a few days after the Diet testimony on the scandal by former Finance Ministry Director-General Sagawa on March 27 showed a rebound to 42.4 percent, a 3.7 increase, in the public support rating for the Abe Cabinet.

 With the domestic political opposition in disarray, with the Korean Peninsula and China providing a hostile international environment, and with the U.S. under Trump empowering him to put Japan first, Abe has the perfect opportunity, with Trump's help, to use the next three and a half years to leave his legacy in the history books as the Japanese prime minister who, at least by his own definition, "made Japan great again."

Glen S. Fukushima is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., and a former deputy assistant United States Trade Representative for Japan and China.

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