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Japan must keep America engaged

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The leaders of the advanced industrialized democracies of the world are gathered in France this weekend for an annual summit meeting known as the G-7. The group was established in the 1970s to address concerns about the global economy and will do so again this year in the face of sluggish growth and uncertainties surrounding the trade war between the United States and China. The G-7 will traditionally issue a joint statement to comment on a wide range of global challenges and signal a shared commitment to a rules based international order. But differences with the Trump administration on prevalent themes such as trade and climate change have rendered the prospects for a unified voice uncertain.

Enter Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose foreign policy strategy is designed to enhance the leadership role of Japan in upholding that international order together with the United States and other similarly minded countries. Abe has leveraged a close personal relationship with President Trump to keep the relationship between the two countries on track and will conduct his fourth bilateral session of the year with Trump this weekend. The meeting is important for the allied relationship between the United States and Japan but could also prove significant in the context of the G-7 because several issues on the agenda relate fundamentally to the international order that the group has long sought to maintain.

On trade, negotiations between the United States and Japan took place in Washington this past week and the two governments might very well announce a deal this fall. The Trump administration wants access to the Japanese agricultural market, which Japan granted during negotiations under the Trans Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade agreement that Trump withdrew the United States from upon taking office. American farmers are losing market access to competitors in Australia, which is in the agreement, and Europe, which has penned a trade deal with Japan.

Tokyo will of course want something in exchange for any concessions on agriculture, such as perhaps a reduction in United States autoparts tariffs and a permanent end to the threat of additional tariffs that Trump floated earlier this year. The outcome of this is far from certain, and a bilateral agreement likely will not induce the Trump administration to suddenly embrace the Trans Pacific Partnership or the multilateral trade system more broadly under the World Trade Organization. However, it would allow Abe to reiterate the importance of joint Japanese leadership with the United States on trade, an important signal to countries in the Indo Pacific region that may be questioning American leadership in this arena.

North Korea could also feature prominently in their discussions. Abe supports Trump administration efforts to explore bilateral diplomacy with Kim Jong Un. However, Japan will also continue to emphasize the need for complete and verifiable denuclearization and the threats posed by all North Korean ballistic missiles. Trump has downplayed the significance of six short range missile launches since he last met with Kim two months ago, which could generate perceptions in Japan that he is focused only on long range missiles that could reach the United States and less concerned with the national security of a close treaty ally. Abe could use the meeting at the G-7 to reiterate the importance of solidarity and deterrence even as the Trump administration seeks to restart negotiations. Abe will continue using this bilateral channel to develop common approaches for this pressing challenge that could upend the regional and global order.

One other example is Iran. The Trump administration would like Japan to participate in a multinational coalition to ensure maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz. The Abe government is considering that request but has multiple issues to consider, including long standing diplomatic relations with Iran, reliance on energy imports from the Middle East, and recent polls showing the public disapproves of Japanese participation in such a mission. But Trump has criticized American allies such as Japan for not doing more in the realm of security and could expect Japan to participate in that context. Abe is not expected to announce a decision but could comment broadly on the importance of regional stability and continued coordination with the United States and the other members of the G-7. This is yet another issue with important bilateral, regional, and global implications that Abe can address during his encounters with Trump.

The distaste Trump has for multilateral institutions and disagreements with other leaders on global issues could make for a contentious G-7 summit. Some observers expect a repeat of the “six plus one” dynamic last year with Trump on the defensive. But for Japan, the “one plus one” bilateral meeting on the sidelines presents an important opportunity to discuss issues related to global norms. The optics in France might not prove favorable, but the summit could still serve as a venue for Japan to demonstrate a sustained commitment to engaging the United States on ways to shape the principles that should underpin the international order.

Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and the deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Tags America Diplomacy Donald Trump Government Japan Kim Jong Un Shinzo Abe

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