News analysis

Japan heaves sigh of relief after Abe's talks with Trump

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is greeted by US President Donald Trump (left) ahead of their joint news conference at the White House in Washington, US, on Feb 10, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not been the most prolific of Twitter users, but he still took to the platform moments after landing in Tokyo to thank United States President Donald Trump for what had been a fruitful weekend.

"Thank you, President Trump, for your warm hospitality!" he wrote yesterday morning.

His choice of Twitter was canny, given Mr Trump's penchant for using the platform. The US leader had - in a farewell tweet - also noted their "two days of very productive talks".

The meetings have allowed Japan - anxious over Mr Trump's provocative rhetoric during his election campaign - to heave a sigh of relief, particularly over defence and security issues.

And the generally positive sentiment is prevalent among official bureaucrats, media outlets as well as the public. A poll by national broadcaster NHK at the weekend shows the approval rate for Mr Abe's Cabinet rising three percentage points to 58 per cent. Some 68 per cent of respondents also rated the outcome of summit talks between Mr Abe and Mr Trump positively. In a separate poll by Kyodo news agency, the approval rate for Mr Abe's Cabinet rose 2.1 percentage points to 61.7 per cent, while some 70.2 per cent of respondents said they were satisfied with the outcome of the talks.

Political watcher Jeffrey Kingston of Temple University said: "After roiling regional ties with his repudiation of America's conventional foreign policy towards Asia, Mr Trump has now embraced those same policies. It is a relief for Mr Abe as Mr Trump has been tossing brickbats at Japan."

Indeed, a joint statement put out after the summit meeting said the US-Japan alliance is "unshakeable". It added: "Amid an increasingly difficult security environment in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States will strengthen its presence in the region, and Japan will assume larger roles and responsibilities in the alliance."

This, Kobe University professor Tosh Minohara said, could put the wind in Mr Abe's sails towards a push to revise Japan's pacifist Constitution, to give its military more bite. "Mr Trump is a catalyst of change for Japan - and an impetus for Japan to change."

The statement also brought up the hosting of US forces in Japan and the North Korean threat. It noted that a mutual defence treaty also covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands claimed by Japan and China.

Said research fellow Ippeita Nishida of Tokyo think-tank Sasakawa Peace Foundation: "While many things still need to be further discussed - and perhaps negotiated - and we may see some deviations later on, both leaders showed good confidence as allied partners and reaffirmed the US' strong commitment in Asian security."

Prof Minohara added that it is round two - "when the US and Japan get into the nitty-gritty" - that could be problematic. "Will Mr Trump link national security with economic issues, which is something which the US has never done before?" he asked. "Mr Trump could say, 'Yes we are going to give these assurances but what are you going to do for us?'"

This point was also raised in a commentary in the Japanese Mainichi daily, which cited unnamed Japanese officials as "warning that the reason Washington has agreed in most parts with Tokyo on security issues is that the US is preparing to demand that Japan make compromises in bilateral trade and financial policies".

Meanwhile, liberal Japanese media questioned Mr Abe's reluctance to address controversial issues, including Mr Trump's immigration ban on refugees or travellers from seven countries. Mr Abe had called it a "domestic issue".

The Asahi Shimbun said Mr Abe "gave the impression of timidity by not emulating leaders of other advanced nations", while around 350 people took part in a rally in Shibuya on Sunday calling for an "inclusive America". Dr Kingston said Mr Abe "was pulling out all the stops to make the summit a success and was not in a pushing mode".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2017, with the headline 'Japan heaves sigh of relief after Abe's talks with Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe