Kishida, LDP Warily Eye Possibility of a 2nd Trump Administration

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Then Prime Minister Abe and then U.S. President Donald Trump speak on a golf course in Chiba Prefecture on May 26, 2019.

The administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is watching the U.S. presidential primaries closely, and with concern. This is because they see an increasing chance of former President Donald Trump becoming the Republican presidential nominee and going on to win the 2024 election. Trump, dominating in the polls, has won both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Between those two events, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ended his campaign and endorsed Trump, leaving former South Carolina Gov. and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley as the ex-president’s only remaining competitor for the nomination.

There is growing recognition of the urgent need to prepare for the possible coming of a second Trump administration, especially since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had a close relationship with Trump during his presidency, died two years ago. A senior Foreign Ministry official has said it is hard to imagine any Japanese politician other than Abe getting along with Trump.

However, it is difficult for the Japanese government to make official contact with Trump, who is currently just a candidate. Kishida’s top priority is to strengthen relations with U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration. Both the Japanese and U.S. governments are coordinating Kishida’s state-guest-level visit to the United States in April to confirm the further strengthening of the alliance.

Kishida is relying on Taro Aso, vice president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, to act as a conduit to Trump. Aso was a close ally of Abe. He sat in on summits between Abe and Trump and played golf with them during the Abe Cabinet. Aso seems to be the right person to complement the government’s efforts to build relationships with Trump. Aso told those around him that if Kishida met Trump, it would be a big problem for the Japan-U.S. relationship, but it would not be a problem for Aso to do so, as he is not in the Cabinet.

Aso visited the United States from Jan. 9 to 13, aiming for a meeting with Trump behind the scenes. He traveled to New York, where Trump is partially based, but the meeting did not take place due to a conflict with Trump’s Republican primary-related schedule. However, Aso believes that it is important that Trump recognized the fact that Aso went all the way to New York to meet with him.

Aso also visited Washington, where he was in contact with a political figure close to Trump and confirmed that he would continue to seek a meeting with Trump. According to a Trump aide, the former president remembers Aso as an important figure close to Abe.

The Japanese government is keenly aware of Trump’s “America First” policy and his disregard for the alliance, frequently asking Japan to bear a greater share of the costs of U.S. forces in Japan. Abe carefully explained how the U.S. side benefits from the U.S.-Japan alliance, and as a result, the alliance was strengthened during the Trump administration.

There are concerns within the Foreign Ministry that Trump will be even more radical in his second term. During the first Trump administration, Cabinet members who were aware of the importance of alliances often kept Trump’s outbursts in check. Most of them, however, left the administration before it ended and are now distant from Trump. There is a strong possibility that the unity of the Group of Seven, which the Kishida administration has made the basis of its foreign policy, as well as the U.S.-Japan alliance, will be shaken.

What the Kishida administration needs to do, in addition to building a relationship with Trump, is to properly promote the security policies that Japan should be pursuing. The Kishida administration has taken steps to fundamentally strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities, but there are still many outstanding issues in strengthening the cyber domain and reviewing restrictions on arms exports.

Senior government officials are only half-joking when they say, “In preparation for a Trump victory, Prime Minister Kishida should practice his golf game.” This is because Abe deepened his friendship with Trump through golf.

The most important thing is for Kishida to restore support for his Cabinet and stabilize the foundations of his administration. Trump prefers a “strong leader,” and senior officials in the Biden administration are also keeping a close eye on the future of the Kishida administration, whose public support is stagnant. Moreover, trust between Kishida and Aso has been shaken by differences in their thinking over the role of LDP factions, meaning that Kishida cannot rely solely on Aso.

Above all, Kishida will not have the opportunity to face a new U.S. president unless he is reelected in the LDP presidential election in September, when his current term expires. Strengthening the foundation of his administration would also be a measure to protect the U.S.-Japan alliance, which is indispensable for stability in an increasingly unstable world and region, regardless of who the next U.S. president will be.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Michitaka Kaiya

Michitaka Kaiya is a staff writer in the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.