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Japan should push for Asian cooperation in absence of effort by Trump, expert says

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Kyodo

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With U.S. President Donald Trump apparently paying little attention to regional order in Asia, Japan should push for cooperation with its neighbors to foster long-term coexistence with a rising China, according to a Japanese expert on international relations.

Trump’s apparent indifference to Asia has triggered concern in the region, but the birth of the Trump administration “should rather be taken as an opportunity for Asian countries to think about regional order by themselves,” said Yoshihide Soeya, professor at Keio University, in a recent interview.

Japan is expected to play a role in promoting cooperation in Asia, such as through strengthening military capacities and helping Southeast Asian countries develop infrastructure, while at the same time maintaining its alliance with the United States, which is necessary to prevent China from prevailing in Asia, Soeya said.

In that respect, the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, even without the United States, could be “extremely important” for pushing regional cooperation in Asia, Soeya said.

On assuming office on Jan. 20, Trump said the United States would pull out of the TPP, a signature policy of his predecessor, Barack Obama, which was signed by the United States, Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim countries. The pact excludes China.

It is very important that a new security and economic system in Asia be formulated by countries without China, utilizing a TPP without the United States if necessary, Soeya said.

“This does not mean, however, that Asian members of the TPP are starting a fight with China. It is important that the countries discuss how to address China and the United States, the two powers wielding great influence on the region,” he said.

While stressing the importance of Japan’s cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Soeya warned against the strategy taken by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of stressing China’s threat and seeking to gravitate around the alliance with the United States.

“ASEAN countries would be reluctant about cooperating with Prime Minister Abe if he continues to depend too much on the United States in his bid to counter China,” Soeya said. “Worries about aggressive Chinese behavior are increasing, but ASEAN countries cannot antagonize China explicitly and would not want to take sides with Japan and the United States.”

Japan needs to keep in mind that if Abe tries to strengthen ties only with specific ASEAN countries as a way to counter China, it could hurt the unity of the 10-member bloc, Soeya said, adding that creating such rifts would benefit China.

“In the end, Prime Minister Abe may be playing into China’s hands if he is fixated on the China threat theory,” Soeya said.

On Trump’s overall foreign policy, Soeya said the president is unlikely to address North Korea’s nuclear threat or the South China Sea issue from the standpoint of maintaining order in the Asian region.

“His ‘America First’ policy will continue, and he does not have any principles regarding international order, while Japan and other countries in Asia, as residents of the region, need to think about ensuring regional order. So there is a big gap between” Trump and Asian countries, Soeya said.