Vastavam web: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heads to the US on Tuesday, hoping his carefully cultivated relations with “golf buddy” Donald Trump will help keep Japan in the loop and out of danger amid a flurry of diplomacy on North Korea.During talks at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the two allies are expected to stress the need to maintain “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang, as well as thrash out bilateral trade frictions.The two golf-mad leaders traded fist-bumps on the course and tucked into burgers and ketchup at a golf club outside Tokyo during Trump’s visit in November, where the pair got on so well it sparked headlines of a “bromance”.
However, the recent breakneck pace of diplomacy around the Korean peninsula nuclear crisis has left Japan battling for relevance, even though it is arguably under the greatest threat.North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has summits scheduled with South Korea and the United States and has already met Chinese President Xi Jinping, leaving Japan conspicuously on the sidelines, with reported overtures from Tokyo towards Pyongyang going unanswered.
Yet it is over Japan that North Korean missiles have been flying and threats to sink the island nation “into the sea” have kept people on edge.In Tokyo, officials deny they are out of the loop and stress they are heavily involved in diplomatic efforts to calm tensions on the Korean peninsula, coordinating closely with Seoul and Washington.
“For Abe, it is important to show that his strategy of sticking to Trump is producing results. In terms of process, he is out of the loop, it’s very destabilising for Japan,” said a diplomatic source on condition of anonymity.
“But the machine is starting up again,” added the diplomat.Japan is pressing in particular for the emotive issue of nationals abducted by North Korea to be put on the table — which many analysts see as highly unlikely.However, Asuka Matsumoto, visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, noted that Trump even mentioned the topic in his State of the Union address.Abe will also seek to win guarantees from Trump that his commitment to security in East Asia remains ironclad and that there is no question of weakening the “nuclear umbrella” in place for decades.
“It’s not a charm offensive but a charm defensive,” Matsumoto told AFP.In addition to North Korea, talks will also touch on trade — another area where Abe’s lobbying of Trump appears to have yielded little.To its obvious displeasure, Japan was not on the list of countries exempt from Trump’s announced tariffs on steel and aluminium.On trade, “Trump is unlikely to be fully satisfied without an immediate, tangible win of some kind,” said Scott Seaman, Asia director of the US-based Eurasia Group.
As he flies to the US, Abe leaves behind him a host of domestic scandals that have chipped away at his normally high approval ratings.He is embroiled in twin cronyism scandals, with accusations he used his influence to get a veterinary school opened for a close friend dominating headlines in the country.Trump too is battling on multiple domestic fronts and the US-led air strikes in Syria threaten to overshadow Abe’s visit.