William Pesek is a Tokyo-based writer and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.”
Scrutinizing Trump’s bromances is a popular parlor game among foreign policy wags. There’s his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, just to name a few.
Yet no bond has persevered as much as Abe’s bond with Trump — or arguably yielded less.
It all started with a sprint to New York’s Trump Tower on Nov. 17, 2016, nine days after Trump’s shock win. When Abe visited the United States 50 days prior to the election, he met Hillary Clinton but not Trump. Why waste time meeting a Republican challenger she would surely vanquish?
But after the election, Abe sprang into action, becoming the first world leader to visit the president-elect. Abe vouched for the “America First” firebrand: “I am convinced Mr. Trump is a leader in whom I can have great confidence” and enjoy a “relationship of trust.”
That testimonial hasn’t aged well. Right out of the gate, Trump reneged on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal that had cost Abe vast amounts of political capital getting his protectionist-minded Liberal Democratic Party onboard. For Team Abe, the 12-nation TPP was vital to curbing China’s surging influence in Tokyo’s backyard.
Now, Trump’s trade war with China is costing Abe his main legacy — the longest economic expansion since the 1980s — and the political clout that came with it.
In August, Japanese exports fell for a ninth straight month, while real wages dropped for a seventh. After taking power in 2012, Abe pledged to end deflation once and for all. Tokyo opened the fiscal and monetary floodgates, driving the yen down by 30 percent. The hope was that an export boom would prod companies to fatten paychecks, kicking off a virtuous cycle. But all is in jeopardy now as economists fear another Japanese recession.
This in turn jeopardizes Abe’s career-long pursuit to revise the pacifist postwar Constitution so that Tokyo can once again field a conventional, offensive military. Abe’s plan to use the currency afforded by a strong economy to pass that legislation to change “Article 9” is now falling by the wayside.
So are Tokyo’s national interests. Trump’s “love” affair with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has Abe’s fellow nationalists in a whirl. Bad enough that Trump humiliated Tokyo by disclosing — against protocol — that Abe reportedly nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize. Worse that Trump looks the other way as Kim tests short-range missiles that could hit Tokyo — or U.S. troops in Okinawa. This leaves Abe with some explaining to do in nationalist circles.
And the bromance didn’t even earn Tokyo a pass on trade. As Trump’s China tariffs are decimating the Asian supply chains on which Japan relies, Trump is browbeating Tokyo for bilateral trade concessions.
The initial trade agreement reportedly agreed on this week does not solve these concerns. There are few details about the plan, with no mention of the real sticking point: automobiles. Trump, for example, has threatened 25 percent tariffs on cars and auto parts at any time. He is also pressuring Abe to buy billions of dollars in military hardware and prod private companies to buy surplus corn that China won’t. Will these issues be fixed by the pact?
“The Abe-Trump romance is a one-sided affair,” says Jeff Kingston, head of Asian studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “Abe has done his best to manage his erratic counterpart but has little to show for his brown-nosing.” Yuki Tatsumi of the Stimson Center in Washington calls the relationship a “friendship without benefits.” And it’s unlikely to get much better.
Trump, for example, wants a weaker dollar, adding to the headwinds zooming Japan’s way. This poses special risks for the largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt. As Trump tosses grenades at the Federal Reserve and generates $1 trillion-plus annual deficits, Washington’s top banker in Asia — with $1.1 trillion of U.S. Treasurys — has ample reason for concern.
Tokyo is also bracing for a Trump shakedown. Trump has long railed against what he views as an exploitative security arrangement. If he’s not sufficiently impressed by Abe’s trade concessions, will he decide to charge Japan more for protection?
Because Japanese leaders are chosen by party and opposition forces are in disarray, Abe has managed to avoid true public accountability for his huge bet on Trump. In July elections, though, Abe failed to win a supermajority in parliament needed to revise the Constitution.
In November, Abe will become Japan’s longest-serving leader. But it won’t be much of a celebration, as his economic success vanishes in Trumpian chaos. When Abe is older, grayer and wondering where his legacy went, one thought might sustain him: We’ll always have Trump Tower.