Shinzo Abe likely to raise security, trade issues at meeting with Donald Trump

US campaign fallout on ties with Japan, S. Korea may be limited following Trump's phone calls

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on Sept 21, 2016.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on Sept 21, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sits down for talks with United States President-elect Donald Trump in New York today (Singapore time tomorrow), becoming the first foreign leader to do so, he will likely broach the subjects of security and trade.

That these two issues - the foundation of relations between the two allies - need to be tackled gingerly shows how much uncertainty surrounds them after a bruising US election campaign in which Mr Trump had cast doubts on them.

Mr Abe has said his priority is to "have candid talks and build a relationship of trust" with Mr Trump, with ties between the two leaders now practically a blank slate.

He is likely to convey his thoughts on free trade - the two countries are part of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, which now appears to be dead in the water given Mr Trump's protectionist stance.

Mr Abe will also discuss the US-Japan security alliance that anchors the US presence in East Asia, though this is also not without controversy, as Mr Trump has accused Japan of free-riding on the US.

He has also said the same of South Korea, where US troops have been stationed to counter the nuclear threat of North Korea, with which the South is technically still at war.

But any fallout from the election campaign, analysts said, looks increasingly likely to be limited given the positive talks that Mr Trump has had with Mr Abe and South Korean President Park Geun Hye.

In phone calls to the two leaders last week, Mr Trump spoke positively about the respective alliances - and reassured Ms Park that the US will be "with you all the way and we will not waver" on North Korea.


This measured tone stands in stark contrast to his campaign rhetoric, in which he had threatened to walk away from his allies.

But it is unclear if Mr Trump will make good on his campaign vow to make Tokyo and Seoul pick up a greater tab to retain US troops.

Mr Abe stressed earlier this week that the presence of US troops in Japan is the "centrepiece of its forward deployment strategy and protects various US interests". As both countries benefit, Japan's burden of costs is "adequate", he said.

Japan, which houses 54,000 US soldiers, foots 75 per cent of the bill. This amounts to 377 billion yen (S$4.9 billion) this year.

Dr Yasushi Watanabe, who teaches American studies at Japan's Keio University, called Mr Trump a "pragmatic and rational dealmaker", adding that "there is cause for optimism that a good balance point can be reached".

Seoul, meanwhile, pays about US$867 million (S$1.2 billion) each year for the 28,500 US troops on its soil to counter Pyongyang. This is about 40 per cent of the total tab.

There are plans to deploy the US$800 million Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti- missile system.

Dr Bong Young Shik of Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies does not think Mr Trump's administration will "bully" South Korea into paying more.

But he warned: "If the South Korean government... were to backpedal from the deployment of Thaad, it will greatly undermine the credibility and trust in South Korea as a security partner and (the US side) will emphasise fair share of costs."

It is also unclear how Mr Trump intends to approach the North Korean issue - he could either adopt a hardline approach as his predecessor Barack Obama has done, or try to engage its leader Kim Jong Un.

Dr Bong foresees contradictions: "Mr Trump takes pride in being a master of negotiation, so I believe there will be dialogue.

"But since all three branches of the US government are controlled by Republicans, there will be continued emphasis on the US actively criticising, and demanding, discernible changes in human rights violations in North Korea."

Then there is the question of whether Mr Trump will urge Japan and South Korea to take up nuclear arms, as he had allegedly suggested on the hustings. His remarks fuelled calls in South Korea to develop its own nuclear arms.

In a recent Gallup poll, 58 per cent of South Koreans said they were in favour of them.

While Mr Trump denied ever making such remarks earlier this week, he did suggest an imbalance in the US-Japan alliance, saying: "If we're attacked, Japan doesn't have to do anything. They can sit home and watch Sony television."

This might give more impetus to a hawkish Mr Abe to implement laws to further Japan's military might. Said Dr Watanabe: "Already, I sense a growing voice justifying the strengthening of Japan's self-defence capability, in case the US deterrence gets weakened."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2016, with the headline 'Abe likely to raise security, trade issues at meeting with Trump'. Subscribe