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Opinion

Shinzo Abe needs to woo China as US grows unreliable

Japan must focus on its neighborhood as it cannot trust Trump

If Abe doesn't change track, things could go horribly wrong.   © Reuters

From Maa Zhi Hong

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was destined and groomed for high office from the day he was born, the scion of a politically prominent family and grandchild of a prime minster.

Now in his second stint in power, he is on track to be the longest serving Japanese prime minister by November 2019. He also successfully hosted the G-20 Summit in Osaka in July.

But while many pundits are saying all is going well for him, and perhaps even Abe himself believes this, I dare to say that things are not -- and if Abe doesn't change track, things could go horribly wrong.

Abe has had the most phone calls and rounds of golf with President Donald Trump of all world leaders. But despite repeated attempts to woo his mercurial counterpart, Japan is the only major ally not to win automatic exemption from U.S. tariffs on its steel and aluminum.

This puts Abe in a difficult political situation as he has nothing much to show for spending political capital on cultivating his relationship with the American president. Abe didn't get the payoff he desperately yearns for from Trump.

To compound his problem, Trump only agreed to delay and not drop his threat to impose tariffs on the Japanese automobile industry, until the upper-house elections in July are over.

As Trump gears up for his 2020 reelection bid, he is expected to take a tough line on trade with Japan to extract a favorable deal, which he desires both as leverage with China and as political capital at home. Further U.S. tariffs to wear Japan down would be a huge blow to the Japanese economy and Abe would find himself in a precarious political situation if these tariffs come.

Abe must realize that there is a limit to the effectiveness of his current strategy of dealing with the U.S. under Trump.

He should understand that Trump is the embodiment of an insular America that is reluctant to shoulder the global responsibilities that it took after the end of World War II.

To its grave peril, Japan has not reacted quickly enough to the changing power dynamic in the region. China has become assertive and flexes its muscles, and Japan cannot expect the U.S. to come to its defense in the unlikely but not impossible event of a war.

Abe should stop spending so much time wooing Trump. He should focus his efforts on improving the relationship with China, which he has already started doing by inviting President Xi for a state visit to Japan in 2020.

And when emotions have died down, Abe should take the initiative to improve the relationship with South Korea, on which he just imposed tech export restrictions.

Japan must never neglect its neighborhood. It is a strategic weakness for Japan to be unable to get along with nearby countries thanks both to history and contemporary politics. While the U.S. may have launched an all-out attempt to contain China, it is not wise for Japan to join the campaign as it has done.

The U.S. only looks out for itself and it doesn't pay enough attention to the interests of its allies, especially in the last two years. I hope Japan will be cunning enough to change course and stand up for itself.

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst based in Singapore

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