February 08, 2017

CNAS Press Note: The Trump-Abe Summit

By Dr. Patrick M. Cronin

As President Trump prepares to host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Asia-Pacific Security Program Director Dr. Patrick Cronin has written a new Press Note, “The Trump-Abe Summit.”

The full Press Note is below:

U.S.-Japan summit meetings are seldom suspenseful, but there is a lot to gain or lose when President Donald Trump hosts Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House on Friday.  Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with then President-elect in November, but an official state visit is far more consequential than a congratulatory in tête-à-tête Trump Tower.  Security and business forecasts will brighten or dim based on perceived outcomes.

Each leader will be tested by the meeting, and the Trump-Abe summit is fraught with implications for the U.S.-Japan alliance, the global economy, and Asian-Pacific security.

President Trump is likely to be judged for his statesmanship.  No one is expecting the new president to resemble Henry Kissinger, but three weeks into his tenure Trump needs to demonstrate that America is in far more capable hands than suggested by some critics.  He can show that he values America’s major ally even while proposing to steer the bilateral relationship in some new directions.  The main objective should be to ensure that vital ends of the bilateral relationship transcend secondary disputes over means and ways. 

Having been elected on a populist platform of economic nationalism, Trump can seek to address the needs of all Americans within the broad confines of existing institutions and without disrupting the foremost pillar of regional security—viz. the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Prime Minister Abe’s challenge is to underline the vitality of Japan-U.S. relations.  Abe needs is to come away from this summit able to start a post-Trans-Pacific Partnership conversation about future economic integration with the United States, and an unequivocal security guarantee from President Trump.  (Last week Secretary of Defense James Mattis masterfully reassured both Japan and South Korea during the first overseas trip by a Trump administration cabinet member, and having the president uphold Mattis’ statement that the Senkakus are covered within the scope of Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty would provide a Trump-Abe bond that could withstand subsequent troubles.) 

Surely Prime Minister Abe will want to avoid the harsh assessments that followed Trump’s truncated phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.  But a seasoned and circumspect politician such as Abe is unlikely to fall into a Turnbullian trap by not allowing dramatic policy differences to surface even in putatively private conversation.

The summit will also either burnish or dullen the reputation of America’s cornerstone alliance with Japan.  Secretary Mattis has just laid the groundwork for a successful summit by stressing a mutual commitment to deterrence and defense, declaring Japan a model ally with respect to burden sharing, and reaffirming the joint agreement to move Marine aviation from the overcrowded city of Ginowan to largely reclaimed land at Camp Schwab in Nago, overlooking Henoko Bay). 

Alliances are part business, but leadership requires vision, mobilizing others around a common purpose, and juggling competing goals.  Trump and Abe have an opportunity to take an already resilient relationship and make it stronger by showcasing innovative actions that benefit both countries and reinforce regional and global stability. 

Prime Minister Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso—both grandsons of important prime ministers from the early-postwar period—have reportedly worked on a plan to ensure that Abe is coming to Washington bearing a new initiative.  The general idea would be to invest in the United States to build infrastructure and create up to 700,000 new jobs, issues that go directly to the mandate of President Trump when he speaks of focusing on American jobs, infrastructure, and economic growth.  Minister Aso and Vice President Mike Pence may play key roles in overseeing the implementation of this alliance stimulus package.  Who knows, perhaps America will finally boast a high-speed rail system covering at least a couple of heavily travelled corridors. 

In effect, Abe proposes to go from Abenomics (with three arrows aimed at ending stagflation and recession in Japan) to a “U.S.-Japan Growth and Employment Initiative” designed to boost jobs, infrastructure, and investment in the United States and with Japan.  Abe’s five-pronged plan promises to add nearly half-a-trillion dollars in value by creating new markets over the next decade.  Whatever difficulties such a plan will face (recall the trouble with the third arrow of structural reform), Abe is likely to win Trump’s approval.

There are other deals that could be announced or at least discussed, including new cooperation on defense systems that would allow Japan to shoulder greater burdens in an increasingly challenging regional security environment.  Areas begging for further security cooperation include the need to build the capacity of other allies and partners, as well as to improve conventional deterrence, missile defenses, maritime domain awareness, and enabling capabilities such as aerial refueling.  Such discussions may take time, but these would seem to be sensible areas that address overlapping security interests. 

Finally, the summit will either roil or soothe relations across the Indo-Pacific region.  Granted, some in the region fear an alliance aimed at competing with China or justifying Japan’s military normalization, but most in the region would prefer a stable, strong, effective alliance and a relationship heavily focused on trade, investment, and economic cooperation.

Toward this end, Prime Minister Abe and President Trump should consider other geoeconomic ideas—including related to energy, cyber space, investment, and development—that might help foster the kind of dynamic, prosperous and peaceful regional environment and global economy that both leaders seek.  Recalling the outsized publicity Chinese President Xi Jinping received by praising globalization at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Abe and Trump need to begin a process of building a serious, long-term vision for the global economy.

President Trump and Prime Minister Abe should both be able to point to this summit as an important early step.  For Trump, Japan becomes a model ally, doing more on both the security and economic fronts; for Abe, the U.S. relationship is too big too fail, and by coming to Washington prepared to work closely with President Trump, the Prime Minister can realize his legacy goals of preserving Japanese power while making Japan a more normal great power. 

Cronin is available for interviews.  To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at  nurwitz@cnas.org or 202-457-9409. 

  • Dr. Patrick M. Cronin

    Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Patrick M. Cronin is a Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, he was the Senior ...