Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with President-elect Donald Trump (and with his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner). After the Nov. 8 U.S. election, Abe was quick to call Trump, who has for decades argued that America is losing to Japan on trade because Tokyo is playing the game unfairly.
And so Abe needed to convince Trump in their meeting this week that the two nations are actually on the same side. In fact, this, according to Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute, was all Abe needed to do.
In Trump’s worldview, Auslin told Foreign Policy ahead of Thursday’s meeting, “everything’s very personal, it’s business: ‘We can work together, we can make a deal together.’ It’s sizing each other up: ‘Here’s someone I can literally do business with.’”
Doing so, Auslin said of Abe, “appeals in the right way to Trump’s own mindset.”
Abe likely also sought to stress the importance of the alliance, or propose general ideas of initiatives he and Trump could undertake together. But mostly, Auslin emphasized, if Abe just made clear he understands Trump will be focused on domestic issues, he could paint himself as someone who wanted to lighten Trump’s load. As someone who “gets it,” just as Trump believes he himself does.
A domestically focused Trump might even serve Japan. Dennis Blair, the former director of national intelligence and former head of U.S. Pacific Command, said if Trump follows through on his “America First” rhetoric, that could push Japan into leadership role in the region as the main advocate for liberalism and open markets. “If the United States simply withdraws from the field, that leaves Japan on its own as the biggest country committed to basic free trade and strengthening the WTO. And that leaves the field to the Chinese if that doesn’t happen,” Blair told FP.
“That would be an interesting read if the UK, Japan and Germany became the leaders of the free trading bloc while the United States sorted itself out for the next several years,” Blair said. “It might have the effect of pushing that mantle onto others and we are sort of left behind.”
But such specifics were likely not Abe’s first objective. Rather, his aim was to establish the understanding that, on day one, when Trump is looking around the Oval Office and the world wondering who is friend and who is foe, Abe falls into the former category. “It’s a good thing for the two of them to get together and just have that channel of communication open,” Blair said.
Auslin agreed. “I think if Abe can create a general sense of solidarity with Trump,” he said, “he’s going to be way ahead of the game.”
And is he? Did the discussion that the Japanese Prime Minister described as “very candid” and the basis for a “relationship of trust” get him what he came for?
After their Thursday evening meeting, Trump posted an Instragram of the two together, captioned, “It was a pleasure to have Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stop by my home and begin a great friendship.”
Well played, Abe.
By Emily Tamkin