Japan’s PM Abe: The quintessential diplomat

- The Philippine Star

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is proving to be the kind of world-class diplomat that people are looking at in an era where uncertain headwinds necessitate a delicate balancing act. His recent visit to Washington can be likened to another diplomatic coup. Upon arrival at the White House, US President Donald Trump greeted the Japanese prime minister with a big bear hug. Even the 19-second handshake between the two leaders – after which Trump gave a two-thumbs up sign – is constantly being played out in Japanese and US news networks including social media.

As Donald Trump himself described it, the two leaders had “very, very good chemistry.” It would seem that Abe’s quiet personality while maintaining an aura of authority appealed to the US leader who has a reputation for being irascible and not the least bit concerned about being politically correct. Abe was invited to fly to Florida on Air Force One – a rare gesture coming from a US president – for a visit to Trump’s luxurious Mar-a-Lago estate on Palm Beach.

Actually, Trump’s victory has become a major concern in Japan, with a Kyodo News survey disclosing that 84 percent of Japanese are worried about the economic implications. Trump had accused Japan of playing the money market and manipulating their currency to take advantage of the US, and threatened Japanese carmaker Toyota over Twitter for its plan to build a facility in Mexico. Of course, security concerns over China and North Korea are also major issues.

But apparently, Abe’s “strategic patience” and understated manner was able to convey the importance of maintaining the US-Japan alliance both in the realm of trade and security. Both countries reaffirmed the importance of deepening trade and investment relations, pledging to explore ways to accomplish shared objectives in promoting trade and economic growth given the recent withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

The joint statement between the US and Japan described the alliance as a “cornerstone of peace, prosperity and freedom in the Asia-Pacific region.”  (During the visit of US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to Tokyo, he gave the assurance that the US would stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Japan and defend the Senkaku Islands which both Japan and China claim.)

They also strongly urged North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile program and refrain from making any further provocative actions. As a matter of fact, sources told me about the smooth manner by which Abe took control of the press conference at Mar-a-Lago following North Korea’s launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile. Abe denounced the launch as “absolutely intolerable,” while Trump – who did not read his prepared remarks over the incident, gave a short but concise statement: “I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.”

Needless to say, Abe’s visit to Washington rebooted the partnership between Japan and the United States, with Abe managing to make a lot of headway in terms of “educating” Trump about the important role of Japan without setting off the US president, in a manner of speaking.

The fact is, Abe was also successful in his meeting with our President Duterte who, like Trump, is an out-of-the-box type of leader – unpredictable and not overly bothered by protocol or politically correct statements. Abe was able to establish good rapport with both men, most likely because he gives off an impression of being respectful and sincere.

Like with Trump, President Duterte invited Prime Minister Abe to visit his modest home in Davao where they had breakfast of simple fare – which is as personal as personal could get. Obviously, Abe’s aura of humility and quiet authority appeals to leaders like Duterte, who described the Japanese as a “friend closer than a brother.”

Shinzo Abe comes from a prominent family of politicians. His father was the late Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe and his mother, Yoko Kishi, is the daughter of the late Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. Filipinos who are familiar with the background of Abe are convinced that he has a “natural friendship” towards Filipinos because of his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was a minister during World War II.

When Japan surrendered in 1945, Kishi was held in Sugamo Prison where he met Ambassador Jose S. Laurel III – son of the late President Jose P. Laurel. That meeting started an enduring friendship between Kishi and the young Laurel, who founded the Philippines-Japan Society (PJS) envisioned by President Laurel. Kishi, who graced the launch of the organization at the Manila Hilton in 1972, was awarded by the PJS in 1980 for promoting Philippines-Japan relations and pushing the war reparations payments amounting to $550 million.

Kishi was the first Japanese head of government to conduct a state visit to the Philippines – greatly contributing to normalizing relations which led to the signing of the Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation in 1960.

The appointment of Jose “Joey” Laurel V as ambassador to Japan by President Duterte with consideration for the Laurel family’s history of friendship with the grandfather of Prime Minister Abe, was a very good move.

Abe’s “personal touch” and earnest sincerity in dealing with “unusual” personalities like Trump and Duterte gave him the flexibility to navigate difficult diplomatic situations. And if Prime Minister Abe does not become Time magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year, then I can safely say – he will definitely be PeopleAsia magazine’s People of the Year lifetime achievement awardee for being “the quintessential diplomat,” in effectively dealing with two "out of the ordinary" leaders in today's modern world.

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