What Trump Portends for Japan-US Relations

When Trumpism Met the East Asian Wall


In his summit with Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, President Donald Trump shifted his East Asian security and diplomatic policy back toward the standard course set by his predecessors. Journalist Teshima Ryūichi takes a look at what Trump’s promises to defend the Senkakus and adhere to the “one China” policy mean for the East Asian diplomatic scene.

A Promise Secured for the Senkakus

At a two-day summit that began at the White House and continued at US President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō successfully secured statements from the new American leader that should maintain calm in the seas of East Asia for the time being. The discussions that took place shed fresh light on the fact that the security situation in the region—from continental China to Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, and the Japanese archipelago—has been painstakingly constructed by long years of delicate diplomacy. And the Trump movement, which has stomped so noisily through the American political scene, has been forced to soften its footfall in this part of the world, the potential stage for a Sino-American clash.

On February 10, after finishing the first session of their first summit meeting, Prime Minister Abe and President Trump held a joint press conference. Here they reconfirmed that Article V of the Japan-US Security Treaty,(*1) which spells out American defense responsibilities in case Japan comes under attack, is applicable to the Senkaku Islands, which China claims. During his campaign for the presidency, Trump had spoken of the need for Japan to shoulder more of the cost burden for stationing American troops on its territory, hinting at the possibility of a drawdown of US forces from bases in Japan and flustering Japanese officials with his unwillingness to make a clear statement on the defense of the Senkakus as an area under Japanese administration.

This was all the more reason for the Japanese side to be relieved at the inclusion in the joint statement issued after the opening round of summit talks of this wording: “The two leaders affirmed that Article V of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands.” This was squarely aimed at checking China—which claims the Senkakus as its own territory and is increasing its presence in the surrounding waters—by letting Beijing know that if it brings force to bear, the American forces in Japan will not hesitate to become involved militarily.

Indeed, the Senkaku Islands are one key to international politics in East Asia. Since the beginning of this decade, the standoff over this territory between Japan and China has steadily intensified. Tokyo, Beijing, and Washington have treated this situation with kid gloves, viewing it as a potential flashpoint leading to bloodshed. In June 2013, just months after Xi Jinping took office as president of China, President Barack Obama hosted him at a two-day summit in Rancho Mirage, California, pleasing the Chinese side by noting that the United States would not ultimately take any position on the sovereignty issue. Only later, when he was welcomed to Japan as a guest of state in April 2014, would Obama grudgingly admit that the Article V treaty commitment extended to the Senkaku Islands. Despite this statement, though, it remained clear that he had no interest in clashing with China and spilling American blood for the sake of defending those uninhabited islets.

With this as the backdrop for this month’s Abe-Trump summit, one Japanese government official involved in laying the groundwork for the meeting notes: “We know that there are concerns about Abe being too close to President Trump, who has drawn global condemnation for his ban on entry to the United States for citizens of some Middle Eastern nations and other controversial policies. But given the East Asian security environment, there are certain areas where Japan has to gain the Trump administration’s approval and understanding as soon as possible. The applicability of the security treaty to the Senkakus is one such area.”

As the old saying goes, you cannot catch a tiger’s cub without entering the tiger’s den. This official’s statement displays the Japanese government’s belief that forging strong personal bonds between the leaders was necessary to secure the pledge that the United States would defend the Senkaku Islands.

Clarifying the “One China” Question

As Abe went into the Trump summit, though, he was dealing with an unexpected shift in the situation. On February 9, just before Abe’s arrival in Washington, President Trump spoke with his Chinese counterpart Xi by telephone, their first talk since the new US president had taken office. During their conversation Trump committed for the first time to honoring the “one China” policy. In this way, he produced two different vectors for his Asian diplomacy in the space of a few days—the application of the bilateral security treaty to the Senkaku Islands, a move to reassure Japan, and recognition of Taiwan as a part of a single China, a move in line with Chinese interests.

For 45 years since the United States’ dramatic rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China, the “one China” policy has been a cornerstone of stability and security in the region. Before taking office, though, Trump—whether it was because he was unaware of the significance of this stance or because he wanted to press China to improve its massive trade imbalance with the United States—played a dangerous card. In an interview with the conservative Fox TV network, he stated: “I don't know why we have to be bound by a one-China policy.”

Looking back at the genesis of this policy, we see a China that was at the time confronting a threat to its north in the form of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union and an America that wanted to extricate itself from the morass of the Vietnam War. Both countries were desperate to improve bilateral relations, but they could not do this until they dealt with the thorny issue of Taiwan that lay between them. This was the one sticking point in the top-secret negotiations that took place in Beijing in 1971 to prepare the way for President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in the following year. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, two key figures in the diplomatic history of the twentieth century, were pushed to their limits in working through this obstacle.

With their description of two “separate roads” that met each other at last, these two diplomats made it possible for Nixon to travel to China, thawing relations between the two nations at last. In the Joint Communiqué of the United States and the People’s Republic of China (the Shanghai communiqué), issued following the presidential visit, the US government stated:

The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.

I know of no other official document dealing with the East Asian situation that is so painstakingly and precisely crafted. While noting its acknowledgement that both the Republic of China on Taiwan and the mainland People’s Republic of China insist that there is only one Chinese state, the Nixon administration pointedly avoids supporting the stance of one side over the other.

In also expressing a desire for a “peaceful settlement” of the Taiwan question, the communiqué subtly checked any plans the People’s Liberation Army might have had for crossing the Taiwan Strait and taking the island by force. Independence-minded forces on Taiwan, too, received a warning against taking any imprudent actions with the expectation that US military forces would be there to back them up. The nuanced messages concealed in the lines of this document sought to maintain stability in this part of East Asia. The alliance between Japan and the United States is aimed squarely at the possibility of a Taiwan military contingency; but if the Trump administration embarks on a foolish deal that leads to crisis here, it is Japan that will be on the front lines of the conflict.

The Dangerous Link Between Trade and Security Policy

It seems likely that Secretary of Defense James Mattis and other cool heads near the president played a part in bringing him back to the established US foreign policy path. By reiterating America’s resolve to defend the Senkaku Islands in his summit with Abe and by reconfirming the country’s adherence to the “one China” policy in his phone call with Xi, Trump managed to nip several buds of potential conflict in East Asia.

In raising the “America first” banner, Trump the candidate played a card showing he was willing to revise American security policy regarding both Japan and China in order to reduce the massive US trade deficit. To secure concessions on the trade front, he signaled, he was willing to tinker with a security stance that multiple American administrations had previously relied upon to prevent armed clashes. In all of this, he showed a lack of awareness of the danger that his actions promised.

Now Japan’s prime minister has come along to forge one of the deepest relationships of trust that any world leader has managed with President Trump. Ideally, Abe will use this political asset as leverage to convince his American counterpart to stop using security policy as a blunt instrument for pursuing results on the trade front. And going farther, it is hoped that he will show leadership in creating a free, fair, and open trade area in the Asia-Pacific region. This, more than anything else, would be the firm foundation of lasting calm in East Asia.

(Originally published in Japanese on February 12, 2017. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and President Donald Trump appear in a joint press conference following the opening session of their summit in Washington DC on February 10. © Jiji.)

(*1) ^ Article V of the treaty reads: “Each Party 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 in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations in accordance with the provisions of Article 51 of the Charter. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”—Ed.

United States security China Abe Shinzō Japan-US Alliance Taiwan trade Senkaku Islands Donald Trump