Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida on Tuesday for two days of meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Abe finds himself in an unexpectedly precarious position back home due to a snowballing scandal as he faces an American president determined to drive hard bargains with both allies and adversaries.
Every handicap of the Trump-Abe meeting has been hastily revised as Abe’s political fortunes sink in Japan. Once seen as nearly unassailable in his popularity, Abe barely squeaked through a morass of corruption allegations and cover-ups tied to a land deal with a controversial private school, only to be hit with another favoritism complaint concerning an old friend who wanted to open a veterinary school.
In both cases, what has hurt Abe’s popularity is the slow drip of documents that cast doubt on earlier statements by his government and implicate lesser officials in cover-up operations. The new favoritism allegations directly involve the prime minister himself, whereas he was seen as a more peripheral figure in the school land deal.
Abe’s approval rating fell to a new low in polls released on Sunday. Once considered a shoo-in for a third term allowed under recent changes to Japanese law, which would make him the longest-serving prime minister since World War II, Abe’s ability to win his own party primary is now somewhat in doubt. The New York Times wondered on Monday if he could remain in office long enough for possible meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in a few months.
Abe is therefore under tremendous pressure to have a successful meeting with Trump, although he arrives at Mar-a-Lago with concerns that Trump will “try to link vital security matters with touchy trade topics,” as Asahi Shimbun put it.
Tokyo is also worried that Trump could make a denuclearization deal with North Korea that compromises Japanese security interests if Trump’s proposed meeting with Kim Jong-un in May or June goes forward.
In particular, Japan wishes to avoid a deal where North Korea gives up long-range missiles that threaten the continental United States and Europe but keeps less powerful missiles that threaten Japan. Abe told his parliament a few weeks ago that a North Korean deal focused entirely on intercontinental ballistic missiles would be meaningless to Japan.
Abe will also want to secure a promise from Trump that he will discuss Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea when he talks to Kim. Trump met with the families of abductees during his visit to Japan in November and promised, “We will try to get them back.”
Time predicts Trump will “lean on Abe to begin negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement” that will be more beneficial to the United States than the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—a trade agreement Trump strongly criticized during his presidential campaign and withdrew from early in his presidency, but appears to be having mixed feelings about these days, as his economic dispute with China heats up.
Abe cannot afford to say no to Trump on trade, but might not survive saying yes. The key to threading the needle might involve building from Trump’s recent remarks that the old TPP was a bad deal for America, but he would consider rejoining a “substantially better” arrangement.
“We already have BILATERAL deals with six of the eleven nations in TPP, and are working to make a deal with the biggest of those nations, Japan, who has hit us hard on trade for years!” Trump wrote on Twitter last week. The ball is clearly in Abe’s court, if not flying directly at his face.
Abe’s advantages include what seems to be a genuine friendship with Trump, having met with him more often than any other foreign leader and enjoyed numerous rounds of golf together. Also, Abe can hope the U.S. president is aware of his dicey political position back home in Japan and will see no point in hammering out a tough trade deal that vaporizes Abe’s administration and leaves Trump dealing with someone else in Tokyo, possibly at the very moment he enters historic talks with Kim Jong-un.