TOKYO >> Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has never seemed to waver in his support for President Donald Trump, seeking out meetings and regularly speaking by telephone. He is one of a few world leaders who rarely criticize or even comment on Trump’s political turmoil at home.
That approach, as much as a personal relationship, reflects Japan’s keen awareness that it needs the United States as its primary protector in a volatile region.
But amid public proclamations that appear to show little difference between the countries — and as North Korea accelerates its nuclear program — Abe has started to consider a more independent role for Japan in Asia: one that looks beyond the current White House as Japan prepares for an era in which U.S. influence may be waning.
Japan is beginning to confront whether it wants to assert itself as a regional leader and carry on the values that have long been the foundation of U.S. policy.
“In the long term, Japan has to think about how to preserve liberal order and free trade,” said Takako Hikotani, an associate professor of modern Japanese politics and foreign policy at Columbia University. “That’s not just in the interest of Japan, but the region as a whole.”
Last month, Japan led trade talks among 11 countries that had negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump abandoned in his first week in office. Japan is eager to salvage the deal and proceed, even if it means forging ahead without the United States.
And in a sign that Japan recognizes it may need to build a stronger relationship with China independent of its U.S. ally, Abe, in a reversal, said this summer that his country would cooperate with Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative. Japan, for its part, has been investing in infrastructure projects throughout Southeast Asia.
Of course, Japan, whose military has long been constrained by its pacifist constitution, has no intention of weakening its ties with the United States, particularly when it comes to security. In Washington on Thursday, Itsunori Onodera, Japan’s defense minister, and Taro Kono, the foreign minister, met with Jim Mattis, the U.S. defense secretary, and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, to cement the alliance between the two countries at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
A joint statement from the officials confirmed that the United States would offer its full protection, “including U.S. nuclear forces,” to Japan.
As the United States and North Korea trade saber-rattling threats and China continues to send ships into disputed waters near Japan, “the reality is Japan just doesn’t have a choice,” said Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence, a political risk consultancy based in New York. To deal with the standoffs in its backyard, Japan “needs the U.S. engaged.”
But even on policy toward North Korea, some in Japan have called for the government to cut a separate path. An editorial in the right-wing Sankei Shimbun on Friday suggested that Japan “get between the two who don’t have any room to accept the other” — referring to the United States and North Korea — and approach Pyongyang to negotiate the return of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea four decades ago.
Others wondered whether Trump’s bellicose talk this month, including a promise to bring “fire and fury” to North Korea, could spook Japan into distancing itself from the United States.
“There might be a question of how far Japan is willing to put up with Trump’s tough stance against North Korea,” said Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
The Japanese media fanned such speculation this week after reporting that Kono, the foreign minister, had met with his North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong Ho, at a regional security forum in Manila this month. The media said that Ri indicated that North Korea was open to talks with Japan, although Japan’s Foreign Ministry declined to confirm those reports.
Some analysts suggested Japan should help mediate dialogue between North Korea and the United States.
“To keep pressing on North Korea with military power is not effective,” said Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former assistant chief Cabinet secretary and the director of a foreign policy think tank in Tokyo.
“Japan should be softening the tension between the U.S. and North Korea,” he added.
But Japan is unlikely to play a meaningful role in instigating talks, said a person familiar with the thinking of Abe and his Cabinet. Neither North Korea nor China see Tokyo as capable of laying the groundwork for multilateral talks, said the person, who was not authorized to speak publicly. Both assume that it is either Beijing or Washington, not Moscow, Seoul or even Tokyo, that could pursue such a role.
For now, Japan plans to increase its ballistic missile defense. The Defense Ministry said that it would request funding to buy a U.S. system, known as Aegis Ashore, that can intercept missiles mid-flight above the earth’s atmosphere.
Critics say Abe should use his close relationship with Trump to nudge him toward dialogue.
“I don’t think there is any reason for Japan to break its ties with the United States,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo. “But being a real partner should also include being able to give honest — and maybe painful — advice to calm down.”
But other analysts said Abe is capable, when he sees it in the interests of Japan, of diverging from the United States.
Under the Obama administration, Japan imposed more limited sanctions on Russia than the White House wanted after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014. And Japan’s efforts to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership could also offer a template for some independence.
“That’s an example of Prime Minister Abe deftly keeping the right positive tone on the alliance at the highest levels,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat specializing in the Korean Peninsula and now a speechwriter in Washington, “but still managing to do his own thing outside of it.”