Abe faces awkward Trump summit


After staking out a hawkish position on North Korea, Abe was caught on the back foot when Trump announced he was open to a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Tokyo’s previous warnings not to trust Pyongyang have been dropped as both Washington and Seoul barreled forward with engagement. Abe is now seeking a summit with Kim for himself, rather than be further left out of North Asia’s rapidly changing political situation.

While Abe had cultivated close ties with Trump, becoming the first foreign leader to meet him after his election, he has also faced disputes with the US leader over trade.

“It’s a sign of the continuing close relationship that he was granted a meeting at short notice,” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at Australia’s Lowy Institute.

“But the shine is coming off there, too, given Trump’s tendency to apply leverage freely between economic and security issues.”

Photo taken from a Kyodo News helicopter on April 14, 2018, shows about 30,000 people gathered in front of the Diet building to seek Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's resignation in the wake of a string of recent scandals.

Protests and polling

Tens of thousands protested outside Japan’s Parliament in Tokyo on Saturday, calling Abe a liar and demanding his resignation over a corruption scandal which has dogged his premiership for months.

Abe has been forced to deny intervening in land sales to ensure preferential treatment for schools close to him and his wife.
The Prime Minister’s approval rating has dropped 5.4% to 37%, according to a recent Kyodo News poll, the second-lowest since his election in 2012.
While there is little political challenge to Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), his grip on power may nonetheless be slipping, as the poll showed less than a fifth of respondents, or 18.3%, backed him to remain as leader when the party holds an internal election in September, the first time support for Abe has dropped below 20%.
A protester holds a placard during a demonstration against Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 14, 2018.

While this weekend’s protests did not come near the size of rallies in 2015 protesting Abe’s push to expand the military, the combination of pressure from within the LDP and from the public has some questioning whether Abe can hold on.

Junichiro Koizumi, a former LDP Prime Minister, reportedly said this week Abe may have to stand down as leader in a matter of months.

“Abe appears unable to shake off the scandals,” said Graham, though he pointed out “there was a time when serving Japanese Prime Ministers would be lucky to register more than 20% popularity ratings.”

“But it is the stickiest period he has faced since returning to the premiership, without question,” he said.

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Duncan Innes-Ker, Asia regional director at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said there was “no question” that Abe had been hurt by the ongoing scandal.

“Against this background Abe badly needs a win,” he said.

The Japanese leader may be hoping that win will come at Mar-a-Lago, where, according to a statement from the White House, Trump and Abe will “explore ways to expand fair and reciprocal trade and investment ties between the United States and Japan.”

Innes-Ker said Trump “could potentially offer concessions on the steel and aluminum issue or he could signal a US intention to rejoin the (Trans-Pacific Partnership).”

While “both would be seen as a triumph for Abe,” he warned they would not come without concessions from Tokyo.

While Trump did surprise observers by indicating last week he may be open to rejoining the TPP — an Obama-negotiated trade deal he once slammed — the White House is more likely to push Tokyo to sign a bilateral deal less to Abe’s liking.

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