The Trump-Abe Summit: A (Mostly) Successful Endeavor

Samantha Flick is an engagement specialist with YPFP NY. The views expressed are her own.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump hosted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan for an official visit. While British Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit a week earlier went well, there were no guarantees the same would be true for Prime Minister Abe’s trip.

The weeks leading up to the Abe’s visit were marked by turmoil after Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto canceled a trip to the U.S. and a phone call between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull turned contentious. At the same time, there were reports of chaos inside the Trump Administration and ongoing challenges to various executive orders issued since Inauguration Day. Understandably, observers were skeptical the visit would resemble success.

To the surprise of onlookers, the Trump-Abe summit went smoothly and achieved the goals set forth by both parties. The visit was “Trump’s most successful interaction with a foreign leader to date,” says Devin Stewart, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

In a joint statement following their meeting at the White House, the leaders “affirmed their strong determination to further strengthen the U.S.-Japan Alliance and economic relationship.” This included the U.S. reiterating its “unwavering” commitment to Japan’s security and defense, as well as the greater Asia Pacific region, as Secretary of Defense James Mattis also said when he was in Tokyo just a few days earlier. The statement restored confidence in the United States among Japan and other Asian allies who feared that Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric would replace a longstanding U.S. policy position.

Another milestone of the visit was the economic dialogue established between Vice President Mike Pence and Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aso Taro. Their conversations will focus on deepening bilateral trade and investment relations. Again, these talks are not purely an attempt to demonstrate good will. The dialogue was necessary to reassure Japan on American commitment to bilateral economic engagement after Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.

While the handshake between Trump and Abe became a viral sensation, attention was also paid to how the leaders received the news and reacted to North Korea’s most recent missile launch as they dined at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. Trump and Abe each condemned the attack and pledged to work together to address the issue. This event also gave Trump the opportunity to “underscore the United States’ commitment to Japan” vis-à-vis North Korea, Stewart says.

It would be fair for the Trump and Abe teams to respectively categorize this visit as a success. However, there are still reasons for those concerned about Japan, or foreign policy more broadly, to continue to monitor the Trump Administration and its actions towards Japan and the Asia Pacific region, Stewart notes.

According to Stewart, “relationships [with U.S. allies] require a level of trust, dependability, and credibility. Without these virtues, global anarchy and thus insecurity are more likely.”

Given Japan’s status as an important trade partner and formal ally of the United States, in addition to the United States’ ongoing concerns elsewhere in Asia, there is certainly plenty for foreign policy wonks to keep on their radars as the Trump Administration enters its second month. Success will hopefully continue to define the interactions between Japan and the United States in this period.