U.S. President Donald Trump, one of the most powerful and controversial political players in the world, is coming to Tokyo on Sunday, kicking off a 12-day trip around Asia, including South Korea and China.
Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are expected to reaffirm the usual message at their summit on Monday: The Japan-U.S. military alliance is stronger than ever, and ready to cope with any threat from North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs.
Japanese officials called their relationship one of the best in decades.
“This is a big difference from the Obama administration,” said one high-ranking official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
President Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor, was often reluctant to meet with Abe, and multiple officials said communication between his aides and their Japanese counterparts wasn’t necessarily smooth.
But since his inauguration on Jan. 20, Trump has met and talked with Abe at an unprecedented pace. They have held four summit meetings and as many as 16 teleconferences this year.
Trump trusts Abe very much and often seeks his views and “advice” on Asian affairs, one of the Japanese sources quoted high-ranking U.S. officials as saying.
“This time, Japan could be basically optimistic about the overall course of the summit meeting,” said Fumiaki Kubo, a professor at the University of Tokyo who is a noted expert on American politics.
Still, top officials in the Trump administration often appear divided and it is difficult for outsiders to fathom what is actually going on at the White House.
The meeting between Trump and Abe on Monday may provide a precious opportunity for Japanese officials to get some much-needed clues on the notorious unpredictability of the Trump administration.
In recent weeks, Japanese officials have been secretly worried that Trump could stage a limited military strike against North Korea without much advance coordination with Tokyo or Seoul, said Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, a Tokyo-based think tank.
“In public, Japan has fully supported the U.S. policy that ‘all options are on the table.’ But Japanese officials now suspect the U.S. might actually use military force against North Korea in a limited way,” Kotani said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
Some Trump administration officials seem to be seriously mulling a limited military strike to show how serious Washington is and thereby bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table, Kotani said.
“In public, Japan won’t oppose the use of such an option. But both Tokyo and Seoul will ask the U.S. to take a cautious approach, and that will be discussed” during Trump’s trip, Kotani said.
In fact, despite the frequent talks between Trump and Abe, Japanese officials appeared unsure what option Trump might eventually take against North Korea.
During a news conference on Oct. 27, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera warned that the North Korean crisis could further intensify by “around the end of this year” because “probably not much time is left” before Pyongyang completes its development of an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach most of the U.S. mainland — possibly armed with a nuclear warhead.
At least until the end of Trump’s trip, Onodera said, the U.S. “will be in the stage of dialogue” and “try hard” to defuse the crisis by diplomatic means.
But “it is rather difficult to predict what kind of phase” Washington will enter after that, he said.
“If (North Korea) continues its nuclear and missile development programs and refuses to renounce them even after President Trump’s visit to Asia, we should further brace ourselves” for whatever might happen next, Onodera said.
Despite concerns since Trump was elected last November, Abe has a clear policy of fully supporting his administration in coping with North Korea.
Unlike some Western leaders, Abe hasn’t criticized any of Trump’s controversial policies in public, including his restrictive immigration policy and his harsh, provocative and often inconsistent rhetoric against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Abe has not excluded eventual dialogue with North Korea but has repeatedly said, “Now is not the time for dialogue.”
To bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table, the international community must first maintain a tough stance and maximize pressure, said Tsuneo Watanabe, senior research fellow at the Tokyo-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
Yet exchanging harsh words and conducting massive military drills could lead to a miscalculation that triggers a military conflict, experts warn — including full-scale war.
“The Kim regime could respond to any kind of U.S./ROK military activity through a variety of conventional and unconventional means, any use of which could escalate into a full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula,” warned a U.S. Congressional Research Service report on military options against North Korea.
North Korean artillery along the Demilitarized Zone alone could cause “tens of thousands of casualties in South Korea” in “the first hours” of a military conflict, said the report, published Oct. 27.
“A protracted conflict — particularly one in which North Korea uses its nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons — could cause enormous casualties on a greater scale, and might expand to include Japan and U.S. territories in the region,” the report said.
Toshihiro Nakayama, a professor of international politics at Keio University in Tokyo, said: “Of course there are risks in Abe’s diplomacy. But in reality, there is no choice but Abe’s current diplomacy for Japan to take now.
“You can’t find an alternative that can replace the Japan-U.S. relationship over such a short period of time.”
He also argued that beyond putting pressure on North Korea, “In the end, you need to explore ways to find a point of compromise to settle issues.”
Media polls have suggested that Japanese have mixed feelings about Trump and Abe’s unwavering support for his administration.
A vast majority of Japanese don’t like Trump as an individual, but at the same time they want to maintain a strong military alliance with the U.S. to defend their own country.
“Japanese people are basically very negative about Mr. Trump personally … but they think (Japan) should keep the country-to-country relationship with the U.S. intact,” said Kubo of the University of Tokyo at a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Tuesday.
According to a survey by the Pew Research Center last spring, the Japanese public’s confidence in Trump had plummeted to 24 percent from 78 percent a year earlier, when Obama was president. Eighty percent believed Trump was “arrogant” and 56 percent said he was “dangerous.”Yet 57 percent of Japanese still held a favorable view of the United States. Eighty-two percent believed the U.S. would help Japan in a conflict with North Korea, and 67 percent believed that would also be the case in a conflict with China.
Staff writer Daisuke Kikuchi contributed to this report.