Trump’s Asia Tour and Japanese Diplomacy


The author, a former diplomat, assesses the outcome of President Trump’s recent Asian tour and considers the implications for Japan’s foreign policy, noting the importance of stronger ties between Tokyo and Beijing against the backdrop over uncertainty about the prospects for the North Korean nuclear and missile development programs and the shape of the regional order.

US President Donald Trump boasted that his recent Asian tour was a “tremendous success.” It is true that in Japan and South Korea, his first two destinations, he conducted solid alliance-cementing diplomacy with a view to dealing with North Korea. But during his subsequent stays in China and Southeast Asia, his approach was limited to an “America first” diplomacy that showed neither strategic vision nor ideals. With this overall assessment as my starting point, in this article I will consider Japan’s position with regard to three major sets of issues: (1) North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs, which now constitute the top threat to Japan’s national security, (2) our country’s relationship with an increasingly powerful China, which is a more structural issue in the international political sphere, and (3) China’s moves to build a regional order in which it holds the leading position.

North Korea’s Missiles and Nukes: No Solution in Sight

In the general election held in Japan on October 22, just two weeks before Trump was due to arrive, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s ruling coalition emerged victorious, and Abe’s long-term hold on power was extended. This outcome increases the chances that Abe, who became prime minister for the second time in December 2012, will hold on to the post through September 2021, making him the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history. Abe’s win was due in part to voters’ concern over the growing threat from North Korea. And this threat is also one of the factors shaping opinions about amending Japan’s pacifist Constitution. President Trump’s visit at this juncture served as an opportunity to demonstrate, both domestically and internationally, the rock-solid strength of the Japan-US alliance, including the extended nuclear deterrence, or “nuclear umbrella,” that the United States provides for Japan.

The problem is that North Korea shows no sign of willingness to abandon its nuclear program. And though China agrees with the United States on the need for the North’s denuclearization, the two countries differ on the specifics of how to achieve this goal. Following his summit meeting with Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping confirmed that China, along with the United States, would continue to fully and strictly implement the UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on North Korea, but he did not go along with the idea of an oil embargo or other further sanctions that could cause the country to collapse.

After the Japan-US summit, Prime Minister Abe declared his unwavering support for President Trump’s position that all options for dealing with North Korea are on the table. But the military option carries the risk of inviting a counterattack from the North. Seoul, home to more than 10,000 long-term Japanese residents and a popular destination for Japanese tourists, is within the range of the long-distance artillery and rocket launchers deployed by North Korea on its side of the demilitarized zone. And in addition to the prospect of the South Korean capital going up in flames, Japan itself faces the danger of becoming the target of nuclear missiles from the North. So a preemptive strike cannot possibly be considered an option acceptable to our country.

Also, though Abe and Trump agreed on the need to apply maximum pressure on the North, we see no vision of how this pressure will actually lead to the goal of denuclearization. Pyongyang is continuing to push ahead with its nuclear and missile development programs, and little time remains until X-day—the day when North Korea achieves the ability to strike the US mainland with intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying nuclear payloads and deploy them in the country. This may also turn out to be X-day for a decision by President Trump to play the military card against the North.

Even as Trump continues his game of chicken with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he is hoping that Beijing will help by applying additional pressure on the North. But judging from the reaction of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Chinese do not share Trump’s view of the situation; they have not changed their emphasis on dialogue and their position that the most feasible, fair, and wise way of dealing with the matter is through a pair of cessations: a halt by North Korea of its nuclear and missile development programs and a halt by the United States and South Korea of their joint military exercises. How will Washington and Beijing decide when to use dialogue, when to use pressure, and how to make the two work together? The prospects are unclear. The future course of developments on the Korean Peninsula now depends on the next moves by Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, and Donald Trump.

Trust at the Top Between Japan and the United States

Since President Trump lacks political or diplomatic experience and displays unpredictability, it is incumbent on Prime Minister Abe, as the leader of America’s most important Asian ally, to present him with analysis of the current situation with respect to North Korea and other regional issues. And he can only do so if he and the president have a relationship of trust.

Abe met with Trump in November last year, very shortly after the US presidential election, and since the new president’s inauguration in January the two leaders have kept in close touch. In addition to their five summits and 16 telephone conferences, the two have shared valuable time playing golf together. At the state dinner for President Trump in Tokyo on November 6, Abe declared: “In the history of the Japan-US alliance, which spans more than half a century, I am convinced that there has never been a year in which the leaders of Japan and the United States have been connected by such strong and deep bonds of friendship as the two of us.”

Top-level diplomacy is extremely important in today’s world, where the information revolution and globalization are advancing. And the building of a close relationship between President Trump, commander in chief of the world’s mightiest military, and Prime Minister Abe, who has strengthened his long-term hold on power—a relationship that allows them to communicate with each other at any time—enhances the reliability and deterrent value of the Japan-US alliance and contributes to the stability of the Asia-Pacific region. The twenty-first-century alliance between the two countries is the cornerstone not only of Japan’s security but also of the peace and security of the region. And the confirmation of this fact by the two countries’ leaders, accompanied by bilateral collaboration, will be crucial in getting North Korea to change its course and in seeking China’s cooperation in this endeavor.

A Relationship with China to Match America’s

President Trump is also placing great weight on the US-China relationship. At the dinner he hosted for President Xi at his private vacation resort in Florida on April 6, Trump declared that friendship had been born between the two of them. And he called President Xi to congratulate him right after the conclusion of the Communist Party Congress in October. In return, Xi put on a great show of close friendship with the US president during his recent visit to China, and he and his wife gave the Trumps a private tour of the Forbidden City. Trump responded with declarations that he and Xi got on extremely well with each other and that the relationship with China was very important for the American people.

To be sure, the relationship between the two countries involves more than close personal ties between their leaders. Particularly in view of the shifts taking place in the power balance and regional order in Asia as a result of China’s rise, the Trump administration’s lack of visible strategies toward Asia or toward China is a serious problem.

Meanwhile, in contrast to the friendly top-level relationships between the United States and Japan and between the United States and China, the ties between the leaders of China and Japan are tenuous at best. It is important for Japan that its ties with the United States be the strongest leg in the triangle of relations among Tokyo, Washington, and Beijing. But Japan must also build ties with China such that the Tokyo-Beijing leg of the triangle is at least comparable in strength to the Washington-Beijing leg. This is essential both for the sake of the other Asian countries that are caught wavering in the gap between Japan and China and also for the strengthening of Japan’s role in the region. In this context, the two recent Japan-China summits are a positive development.

Next year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Japan-China Treaty of Peace and Friendship and of the launch of China’s open-door and liberalization policies. Japan supported China’s subsequent development with the provision of some ¥3.6 trillion in the form of grants, loans, and technical assistance under its program of official development assistance. No new ODA loans have been extended since 2007, but final payment of the ongoing project which was previously agreed on funding for a comprehensive environmental improvement program, including reforestation and building of erosion control dams, in Qinghai Province—just ended in September this year.

I hope that this anniversary year will serve as the occasion for a return to the starting point of the 1978 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, in which Japan and China pledged to “develop relations of perpetual peace and friendship,” along with a recognition of the contributions that China has made to peace and prosperity in Asia and around the world through the implementation of its reform and open-door policies. I also hope that next year will bring the resumption of the mutual visits between the two countries’ leaders as agreed in the 2008 Joint Statement on Comprehensive Promotion of a “Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests” and that the stage will be set for cooperation in addressing common issues.

China is Japan’s biggest trading partner, and of the overseas operations set up by Japanese companies, 32,000—45% of the global total—are located there. Japan’s national interests are advanced by diplomacy that minimizes political and security risks and maximizes the profits from such business ties. The key point is to conduct repeated dialogue and negotiations in line with the four-point agreement “Regarding Discussions Toward Improving Japan-China Relations” adopted in November 2014.

Japan’s Role in Building a Regional Order

In closing let us also consider the prospects for the regional order in Asia in the light of President Trump’s recent Asian tour. Trump, with his America-first agenda, takes a political and diplomatic stance that differs in a fundamental way from the basic policies of Barack Obama and other previous US presidents, who stressed universal values and sought to build a free and open international economic system. Trump’s diplomacy is directed not at the advancement of values like democracy and human rights but at the pursuit of commercial profits, and he places short-term deals ahead of longer-term strategy.

For the Communist leaders of China, who are wary of the penetration of Western values, a US president like Trump may actually be easy to get along with. During Trump’s recent visit, the Chinese came up with more than $250 billion in offers of business for American companies. It is not certain that this will lead to correction of the structural imbalance in US-China trade, and there may also be some debate regarding how much of the declared total will involve real net payments. But China, which has been extending its international influence by wielding its growing economic might as a diplomatic card, has now also become more confident of its ability to build a relationship with the United States on even terms as a great power. And President Xi, having strengthened his one-man leadership position at the recent party congress, will be pressing ahead with the "One Belt, One Road" initiative and working to build a Chinese-led regional order.

In a speech at the meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that he attended at the end of his Asian tour, President Trump offered the rival vision of a US-led “Indo-Pacific” strategy, referring to such points as the rule of law and freedom of navigation, but the main thrust of his speech was the idea of concluding fair and reciprocal trade agreements, with the focus being on promoting national interests.

The United States has reconfirmed its involvement in Asia, but meanwhile President Trump has set adrift the strategic diplomacy by which the United States had acted as the guardian of the international order with moves like pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks and directing barbs at the World Trade Organization. Japan should strive to correct the course of US diplomacy, championing the liberal order through efforts to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific region and to conclude TPP 11 (a TPP agreement without the United States), while strengthening its ties of partnership and cooperation with other like-minded countries.

At its recent congress, the Communist Party set forth a policy of leadership by the party on every front. If the authorities in Beijing pursue a course that treats the “socialist market economy” as superior—for example, by strengthening the role of state-owned enterprises—the impact will extend beyond China’s own economy, raising concerns about the prospect for high-quality rules and transparency in the Belt and Road Initiative. Japan, while tapping the dynamism of the Chinese economy, should play a role in this and other initiatives that China is advancing, such as the "One Belt, One Road" initiative and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, so that the regional order in which China is exerting growing influence will be one that is free, fair, and based on the rule of law.

(Originally published in Japanese on November 20, 2017. Banner photo: President Trump and President Xi on their way to dinner at the Great Hall of the People on November 9, 2017. © Reuters/Aflo.)

China Abe Shinzō North Korea Donald Trump