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Donald Trump visits Japan

by Rabea Brauer, Florian Rauchfuß
As the first foreign state guest since the accession of Emperor Naruhito, US President Donald Trump visited Japan between 25th and 28th May. During his four-day trip he aimed for improving trade relations between the two countries – as expected, no concrete results were achieved.

Shortly after his arrival in Tokyo, Trump made clear what he expected from his visit: fairer trade relations between the two countries and more Japanese investment efforts in the United States. But before the political talks started, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once again proved his famous “golf course diplomacy”. In an intensive program that included a game of golf and a dinner in an exclusive restaurant Trump was furthermore the first US President ever to be invited to a tournament of traditional Japanese sumo wrestling. More than 10,000 spectators cheered when he presented the winner with the trophy of the "Presidents Cup".

Shinzo Abe demonstrated his diplomatic skills once again. The benevolent program quickly showed effect. Already on the first day Trump twittered to possibly induce no further tariff increases on Japanese steel and aluminum imports as well as automobile exports before the Japanese upper house election in July. This is in particular interest of the Liberal Democratic Party, as it is speculated that Prime Minister Abe will also hold parallel elections for the House of Representatives in order to consolidate his political power. An escalation in the trade dispute before the elections would not be in Abe’s' interest. The opposition parties have strongly criticized this, accusing Abe of discussing his domestic policy with the US president before informing the Japanese public.

Before returning home on Tuesday, Abe and Trump boarded the Kaga, the largest warship constructed by Japan since the end of World War II. This is another historic premiere, because no US President has ever been aboard a Japanese naval vessel before. The existence of the helicopter carrier serves primarily as a deterrent to China, which is becoming more and more aggressive. Particularly because of the conflict over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the South China Sea, Tokyo is striving for a stronger presence in the region. But the warship is also a response to the North Korean nuclear weapons tests. Trump's visit to the Kaga is perceived in Japan as a clarification of the military alliance with the USA. Recently Trump had confused many Japanese when he downplayed the North Korea's missile tests, which started in early May, and also twittered euphemistic thoughts about Kim Jong-un.

During their joint talks Trump refrained from critical statements. In contrast, substantial agreements were reached for solving the North Korean abduction issue. The Japanese Prime Minister afterwards declared that Trump had pledged his full support for a meeting with Kim. Abe in return promised Trump in exchange to buy 105 brand new F35 stealth aircrafts worth over USD 9 billion. This would provide Tokyo with the largest F35 fleet of any US ally. Some Japanese experts validate this as an enormous upgrade of Japan's role in Asia, especially as the Kaga, for example, will be enlarged into an aircraft carrier in the near future.

Trump's visit leaves mixed feelings in the Land of the Rising Sun. On the one hand, many political observers have the impression that Trump is just spending an amusing weekend with Abe at golf courses and sumo tournaments. On the other hand, the benevolent, unique program is a skillful diplomatic finesse and expresses the good personal relationship between Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe. In four weeks Trump already will be back in Japan for this year's G20 summit in Osaka on June 28th and 29th.


Rabea Brauer

Rabea Brauer

Country Representative Japan/ Director of Economic Programme Asia (SOPAS) +81 3 6426 5041