G-20 Osaka: A test of Abe’s high-wire friendship with Trump

Why We Wrote This

For international leaders, what is a friendship with Donald Trump worth? Japan's Abe Shinzo seems to hope their relationship will keep Mr. Trump from straying further from the multilateral foundations of the postwar world.

Koji Sasahara/AP
Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo speaks during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo June 26. Mr. Abe has pledged to seek a consensus on free trade and other contentious issues at this week's Group of 20 summit in Osaka.

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Last summer, as the Group of Seven convened in Quebec, photographers snapped an immediately iconic image: a group of European leaders appearing to lecture to an unamused and cross-armed Donald Trump.

And standing right in the middle? Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

Mr. Abe has lavished attention on his relationship with Mr. Trump, hoping to prevent the president, a disruptor-in-chief of the post-World War II order, from straying any further from the world’s multilateral system.

“Tokyo’s view, and they’re probably right, is that Abe is better positioned to do this than any other democratic ally of the United States,” says Michael Green, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

But, as the G-7 photo captured so well, it’s not always a comfortable role. On Friday, when the G-20 convenes in Osaka, Japan, Mr. Abe will be walking something of a tightrope: hosting leaders of the world’s top economies; keeping attention on their shared economic agenda, rather than spotlight-stealing sideline tête-à-têtes; and developing a summit statement that sounds no alarm bells about global trade.

For Japan, it’s an “exciting position to be in but also very worrisome,” says Mr. Green.

The agenda Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has planned for this weekend’s Group of 20 summit in Osaka is an ambitious one – infrastructure, health care, rules of the road for e-commerce and data flow, and shoring up the global trading system and weakening global economy. New this year to the agenda are the “global aging crisis” and marine plastics, two issues of urgency to the summit’s fast-graying, archipelago host nation.

But as the world’s largest economies meet, Mr. Abe is likely to have in the back of his mind another goal that has been a top personal priority for more than two years: keeping Donald Trump happy, while preventing the disruptor-in-chief of the post-World War II order from straying any further than he already has from the world’s multilateral system.

In particular, Mr. Abe will be looking to head off any further deterioration of the international trading system on which Japan’s postwar prosperity was built, some Asia economic experts say. That means avoiding the kind of tense debate over trade and rising protectionist practices (like Mr. Trump’s preferred trade tool, tariffs) that marked the discussion at last year’s G-20 summit in Buenos Aires – and keeping leaders focused on their shared economic agenda, in the first place, rather than sideline tête-à-têtes.

“The Japanese government, and especially Prime Minister Abe, want to keep the U.S. engaged in international institutions – the World Trade Organization, the G-20, and the G-7” group of industrial economies, “which is very, very important to Japan,” says Michael Green, the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia under President George W. Bush.

“Tokyo’s view, and they’re probably right, is that Abe is better positioned to do this than any other democratic ally of the United States, because he has the best personal relationship with Donald Trump of any of the G-7 democratic leaders,” says Mr. Green, now senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It puts him in an important position.”

That “position” which Mr. Abe occupies was captured in now-iconic photos taken at last year’s G-7 summit in Quebec, showing a resolute and unamused Mr. Trump, arms folded across his chest, appearing to be lectured by European leaders and the summit’s host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In the middle, “looking concerned and sort of by body language in between Europe [and] the president, is Mr. Abe,” Mr. Green says. “I think Abe sees himself in a position almost to bridge Europe and Canada and the U.S., which is a really unique, and in some ways for Japan, exciting position to be in but also very worrisome,” he adds. 

Eyes on the sidelines

Large multilateral gatherings like the G-20 tend to be overshadowed and even dominated by the big international news events of the moment and by the key bilateral meetings taking place in the margins – and Osaka is almost certain to follow that pattern.

All eyes will be on Mr. Trump’s sit-down with Chinese President Xi Jinping, now expected to take place Saturday. Can the two professed “friends” find a way out of the trade war that has dampened global economic growth forecasts – and which threatens to intensify, with Mr. Trump poised to increase tariffs up to 25% on an array of Chinese goods if a solution is not found?

That’s the first out-of-the-blocks question dominating pre-summit conversations at Osaka’s Intex convention center, where the gathering of more than 30 world leaders and international institutions begins Friday.

Reports out of Washington and Beijing Thursday said the two sides had tentatively agreed to a “truce” in the trade war that would allow for a resumption of negotiations without the imposition of any new or higher tariffs. According to Chinese reports, the truce was the condition Mr. Xi set to agree to talks with Mr. Trump in Osaka.

The runner-up topic of interest is the rising tension between the U.S. and Iran, and whether or not another U.S. Middle East war will be avoided.

In addition to his conversation with Mr. Xi, Mr. Trump will hold bilateral talks with eight other leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr. Abe. But some countries are letting it be known they do not think the important issues the G-20 leaders are slated to address all together should be given short shrift. French officials – whose president, Emmanuel Macron, pursued a brief “bromance” with Mr. Trump in what looked like an (eventually unsuccessful) attempt to woo the U.S. president to pursue a traditional American leadership role – have been especially blunt.

Their view? The G-20, whose leaders represent 80% of the global economy, should not be “hijacked” by bilateral issues and tensions. 

Fruits of friendship?

As host, then, Mr. Abe will be walking something of a tightrope, keeping attention on the global economy while underscoring his own special relationship with Mr. Trump.

Indeed the Japanese leader may be hoping that the attention he has lavished on Mr. Trump will pay off in small ways in Osaka, even if he knows cultivating the U.S. president remains a work in progress, some regional experts say.

“For Abe, molding Trump is a long-term project, and I don’t think he believes in any case that he can influence Trump to appreciate multilateralism and reverse his instincts on that,” says Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of East Asian studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Massachusetts.

“But I do think he hopes that by maintaining these very close ties he can keep Japan close to the United States and play some role in keeping the United States favorable to Japan and to an active role in Asia,” he adds.

Demonstrating the importance he places on keeping the U.S. as Japan’s top ally, Mr. Abe treated Mr. Trump to a lavish visit in May that included an audience with Japan’s new emperor.

But before leaving Washington for Osaka Wednesday, Mr. Trump assumed his “America First” stance in a Fox News interview, saying U.S. relations with Japan are unfair. He referred to a postwar security pact between the two countries that commits the U.S. to defending Japan in the case of an attack, and said the U.S. gets no reciprocal commitment from Japan.

Japanese officials bristle at such charges, noting that Japan provides bases for the U.S. military on its soil – including a Marine base in Okinawa that is the largest outside the U.S.

Mr. Abe is also hoping his sustained charm efforts – he was the first leader to visit then-President-elect Trump in December 2016 – will quell Mr. Trump’s occasional threats to impose tariffs on foreign automobiles.

But that issue will have to wait. As host this weekend, Mr. Abe will likely be more focused on leveraging his friendship with Mr. Trump to achieve a summit statement that sounds no alarm bells on global trade.

Guided by Mr. Abe, “the Japanese team [at the G-20] will be trying to avoid deadlock,” says Mireya Solís, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. What the Japanese learned from the dust-up at last year’s G-20 is that pushing language like “fighting protectionism” and “unfair trading practices” is “going to get you nowhere” in the current global climate and with the current U.S. president.

As a result, Ms. Solís says, the Japanese are going for “new language” for the G-20 final statement on trade that “highlights where we all want to go” and focuses on a “predictable trading system.” The hope, she adds, is that this less-pointed language will pass muster with the Trump administration.

Mr. Abe may learn soon enough if his long courtship of Mr. Trump has paid off.

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