US President Donald Trump (R) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pose for a photograph as they walk to board Marine One departing for Andrews Air Force Base en route to West Palm Beach, Florida, after their joint press conference at the White House in Washington DC, US on Feb 10, 2017. [Photo/Xinhua]
In his first weeks in power Donald Trump has caused domestic and international concern due to some of his executive orders and the subsequent activation of checks and balances. If there is a policy area, however, where he seems to be particularly careful, it is his country’s strategy vis-à-vis Asia. In spite of his phone call with Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen before taking office, he has now realized China’s sensitivity on the issue and is committed to adhere to the one-China policy. This was confirmed during his telephone conversation with President Xi Jinping.
More can be written about U.S.-Japanese relations. That is because Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the U.S. and became the second foreign leader to meet the 45th president after British Prime Minister Theresa May. In his pre-election campaign, Trump alarmed Tokyo by promising a new type of isolationism, which would affect both Japan and South Korea. Instead of reiterating traditional American support, he advised a different model of self-protection and self-defense.
As a result, the announcement of Trump’s victory last November was received with disappointment and frustration in Japan. This is the case not only for political elites but also for the public. The main sentiment was a combination of “shock and worry” according to interviews conducted by the Japan Times. Then Abe travelled to the U.S. only a few days after the presidential election to meet the then president-elect in an effort to build trust and possibly solve the misunderstanding. Several telephone conversations between them followed.
Within this framework, the recent visit of Prime Minister Abe to the U.S. and his talks with now President Trump are not surprising. As opposed to the pre-election period, the U.S. administration is no longer showing reserve in publicly acknowledging its “tremendous interests” in Asia. At first glance, one conclusion to be reached is that no serious turn in security priorities is expected.
It has become clear from the White House that the Trump administration will respect the bilateral Security Treaty and will apply Article 5 if required. This article “recognizes that an armed attack against either party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger.” Thus, it theoretically means that Washington will support Tokyo over the Diaoyu islands dispute.
For Beijing to hear that the U.S. will preserve its military collaboration with Japan and will possibly strengthen their alliance does not constitute any breaking news. What is certainly more interesting is to analyze how economics will be interwoven into foreign policy choices. In his press conference with Abe, Trump mentioned nothing about the cost of maintaining U.S. forces stationed in Japan. This probably deliberate omission raises questions on the level and nature of bargaining between the two sides in the field of trade. This issue becomes even more important after Trump’s decision to withdraw his country from TPP.
The U.S. president’s insistence on reducing trade deficits, which amounted to $69 billion in 2016 in the case of Japan, proceeding with bilateral trade deals and achieving greater access to foreign markets can weaken the position of the Japanese prime minister at last. In order to serve its national security interests with American support, Tokyo will be tempted to accept a significant part of Washington’s economic agenda. For the time being, no agreement on terms can be seen in the short-term. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso are assigned to launch new rounds of negotiations to break the ice.
On the whole, the meeting between Trump and Abe ended with the latter avoiding a public shock similar to that of the pre-election period while the former was the real winner for the future evolution of the bilateral relationship.
Nonetheless, the most critical point during their press conference was perhaps the U.S. president’s reference not to Japan but to China. As he publicly said following his “warm conversation” with Xi: “I think we are on the process of getting along very well.” Although this remark does not necessarily mean that differences with the Beijing administration will be overcome soon, it is indicative of his general approach towards Asia. By valuing the role of China at the international and regional levels, Trump can better understand developments and have a greater chance of succeeding in his policies.
By chance, on the same day of his press conference with Abe, North Korea launched an unknown type of ballistic missile. This is a new signal of fragility in the region, the gravitas of China in diplomatic efforts and the miscalculations of some of the choices the U.S. has made.
George N. Tzogopoulos is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.