By Takashi Kanatsu
Professor of Political Science
President Donald Trump has just completed his 11-day trip to Hawaii and Asian countries, his aim being to promote the United States’ interests in both economy and security. After Hawaii, he first spent two nights in Japan, followed by one night in South Korea and two nights in China. After China, he moved to Vietnam to attend the APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting. After Vietnam, his last stop before returning to the United States was the Philippines.
Although it is too early to tell the exact achievement of Trump in this trip, let me discuss some of the important findings of this trip. Overall, this trip did not create anything surprising and each government calculated to make the best outcome from the trip mostly symbolically. I would characterize this trip as the confirmation of the United States relative decline to Asian countries; this can be seen in its dealing with Japan and China.
First, Trump made Japan his first stop, which was to confirm the strong alliance between the United States and Japan. Since the victory of Trump in the U.S. presidential election, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan performed to become the most reliable partner for the United States. Abe visited Trump at Trump Tower as the first major foreign leader to do so, and Trump welcomed Abe in his first visit to the United States with a very personal touch in his resort Mar-A-Lago in Florida. The Japanese government understood how important playing golf is for Trump and used this knowledge effectively in the presenting a golf club gift. Fortunately, Abe is also a big fan of playing golf. Japan, which tries to stay as a leader in Asia while its position has been undermined by the rise of China, needs the United States as much as the United States needs Japan. The personal relations cultivated between Abe and Trump served the best interests of both countries.
In addition, Abe was able to use his leverage more than Trump did for two reasons. First, Abe was able to become the best friend for Trump among world leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel does not get along well with Trump – the same is applicable to French President Emmanuel Macron. British Prime Minister Theresa May could have been a good friend but she lost the election, while Abe won landslide victory right before Trump’s visit to Japan. (Note that Trump made a call immediately after the election to celebrate the victory of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party.)
What did Japan gain after Trump’s trip to Japan? He was able to secure the U.S. commitment to put maximum pressure on North Korea. They also agreed to check China’s presence on the East and South China Seas. Abe was able to get what he wanted. Because Trump’s administration is busy with other domestic and international issues without even being able to fill in all key government positions, Trump basically followed Abe’s proposed scheme of the “open and free Asian-Pacific region” involving India and Australia to contain the rise of China. The Trump administration, which does not have the luxury of making a new plan for the Asia-Pacific region, had to just follow the scheme that Abe’s administration suggested.
In terms of trade relations between the two, in which the United States wanted to put pressure on Japan to reduce trade deficit, Japan was able to avoid making any serious commitment. Trump just made a remark to encourage more investment, particularly in an automobile industry in the United States, with thankful remarks for already made investments into factories in the country. Another request Trump made was to buy more weapons from the United States. This latter part was already Abe’s priority and will not hurt any of Japan’s businesses. For example, Abe already put the budget of the Aegis Ashore system in order to counter North Korea’s missile threat. Now, Abe – who wants a stronger military capability for Japan – can use this foreign pressure to push it further.
Japan, which promotes the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), did not have to agree to hold a bilateral trade talk with the United States, as the United States has been busy with NAFTA and South Korea-U.S. FTA trade agreements. In the TPP talks, which are taking place simultaneously in Asia now, Japan was able to lead the talks as the largest economy among 11 member nations without the presence of the United States, as Trump opposes the TPP. By the time the United States comes back to the TPP after Trump, or even when Trump has no other choice, Japan will be able to sit in the leadership position and as the most patient supporter of the U.S. return.
With China, Trump maintained his position clearly. However, Trump made an amazingly yielding statement, which should have made China’s General Secretary Xi Jinping extremely happy – the trade deficit with China was not created by China, but by the previous U.S. administrations. In addition, Trump was not able to gain any further commitment from China to control North Korea. On the territorial disputes of the South China Sea, again Trump could not gain any commitment from China. So, in China, Trump gained nothing but yielded significantly on the trade conflict to China.
Trump’s isolationist policies and his one-on-one deal making style diplomacy so far has not produced any tangible benefits for the United States in a relative term. He could not exercise any influence to make countries he visited take significant actions. The U.S. position in Asia becomes weaker and weaker. However, the United States cannot abandon the Western Pacific because so much of world economy and technologies are at stake.
With Trump and the current declining status of the United States abroad, working with Japan is the only option. The United States had to accept China, not as its subordinate, but as a rival. Putting pressure on China will not make this rising superpower act to contain North Korea. Trump could not make a great wall to stop China’s trade surplus with the United States. Trump even failed to keep South Korea on our side clearly. South Korea recently signed the agreement with China to listen to its historical mentor state.
Whether this was because of the lack of skills of the Trump administration or simply the relative decline of the United States – regardless of who its president is – is hard to tell. As Trump aptly criticized, the previous administrations also failed on North Korea and controlling China. Maybe the United States should think of the very stable and powerful Abe administration of Japan as a key asset for foreign policies in Asia with its own somewhat less commanding role.
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