OSAKA – Shinzo Abe had good reason to return home to Japan feeling satisfied about a good weekend’s work and play in Washington and Florida, with a little bit of help from his friend Kim Jong Un. The North Korean leader broke into the prime minister’s dinner tete-a-tete with President Donald Trump by firing an upgraded medium range ballistic missile 500 km into the Sea of Japan on Feb. 12. Pictures show the leaders of Japan and the U.S. and their aides studying papers with the aid of lights of mobile telephones also illuminating iceberg lettuce on the plates in front of them.
Was this a breach of U.S. national security for the president to be discussing sensitive issues in front of Abe, and other diners, at Trump’s resort? Or perhaps, as claimed, they were merely scrambling to finalize the press release. At any event, Trump stood with Abe and promised: “The United States stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.”
This was a change from Trump’s campaign rampage when he accused Japan of ripping off the U.S. through its trade and currency policies, and taking a free ride on U.S. military protection
But it’s best not to celebrate too soon. The meetings, and their rude unwelcome interruption from Kim, raise far-reaching issues and questions not only for the two countries, but for the future of a peaceful and prosperous Asia. None of the leaders, not Trump, not Abe, not President Xi Jinping of China, not whoever is in charge in South Korea, and certainly not North Korea’s provocative murderous Kim is up to the job of making Asia safe.
Abe went to the U.S. prepared to buy American favors by suggesting a massive plan for $150 billion plus in Japanese investment to boost the U.S. economy and create up to 700,000 new jobs, including quality infrastructure, high-speed trains and cybersecurity.
Contentions over trade got pushed into the background, but Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will take charge of a so-called economic dialogue, which will look at monetary policy, cooperative projects and trade.
Japanese companies, especially automakers that are in Trump’s sights, will point out that they have created many U.S. jobs and surely can’t be blamed if American carmakers do not pay the same care and attention to studying Japan to understand that Japanese favor high performance small cars.
On the other side, Japan with its careful protection of inefficient and uncompetitive vested interests, notably in agriculture, has a long history of closed markets in which the main victims have been the Japanese people and the principal beneficiaries have been key cliques supporting ruling politicians, a sad commentary on Abe’s supposed reforming zeal.
Facts and friendship may not matter if Trump gets into his “every country takes advantage of us” mood. Japan should tread carefully: with its massive $60 billion trade surplus with the U.S., it is in a weak position if Trump resumes his macho political style. In any political free-for-all, all concepts of free or fair trade will go out the window.
Abe defended his decision to pay court to Trump, claiming that “only the U.S.” would help defend Japan and retaliate “in the event North Korea were to launch a ballistic missile.” He added: “There is no other choice than to cultivate a close relationship to Mr. Trump and display it to the world.” Accordingly, Abe said he had offered Trump his cooperation and told him that unless “the U.S. fulfills its role as leader of the free world, the world will fall into chaos.”
But Trump is stirring up chaos. After three weeks in office, he has pulled back from some of the more extreme positions he threatened when campaigning. His defense chief, James Mattis, pledged reassurances to South Korea and Japan of continued U.S. support. He then went to a meeting of NATO ministers and described the alliance as a “fundamental bedrock” of U.S. policy, though he demanded that European members increase their defense spending.
Trump also caused surprise when he told China’s Xi that he accepted the “one-China” policy, going back on previous suggestions that Beijing would have to earn his acceptance.
At a brief news conference with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump said almost offhandedly that he supported either a one- or a two-state solution, whichever the Israelis and Palestinian protagonists preferred. It was seemingly a casual way to overturn decades of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East.
Understanding Trump’s foreign policy is made more difficult by his mood swings, exacerbated at times because he is a micromanager peering into all of the nitty-gritty details of policy. At other times he reverts to a grand chief executive who expects underlings to get on with the details while he grandly surveys the Big Picture.
Trump has failed to get a full team in place. He railed against Democrats for delaying confirming his Cabinet picks, but he has not even nominated 680 of the 700 positions that require Senate confirmation. But overshadowing Trump’s first month is the fiasco of the sacking of his national security adviser, former three-star Gen. Michael Flynn, after he was caught being economical with the truth about his telephone conversations with Russia’s ambassador to Washington. Linked is the story that will not go away: Does Trump have some secret connections with Russia that would explain why he is cozying up to President Vladimir Putin, the only world leader for whom the new U.S. president has warm words, not stinging criticism?
All this makes Trump unpredictable, and if his wild news conference Thursday is a guide to his mind, darkly so.
While Abe and Trump were dining, North Korea’s Kim fired a dangerous shot against Asian dreams of peace, on which Trump has been largely silent. He has not condemned Pyongyang’s missile launch and pointedly refused to say what he might do. Partly that’s because he does not have many options. Kim has thumbed his nose against successively tightened international sanctions in his determination to be a full-fledged nuclear-armed power.
Taking out North Korea’s nuclear facilities, whether by a bombing blitz or by a scalpel commando attack on the plants or on Kim Jong Un personally would be dangerous. Before the election Trump talked of sitting down over a burger with Kim, which is something Korean experts have urged, but in their present moods where would either leader feel safe, even if they could trust the food?
China is deliberately not going to help. After nearly four years as president, Xi has not met the young Kim. Commentators claim that Beijing has diminishing influence in Pyongyang, but China fears chaos and threats to itself if Kim is brought down, so prefers to pass the nuclear parcel to others.
Before Abe went to the U.S., there was talk that he would use the cover of renewed support from Trump’s White House to revise the Constitution and get rid of Article 9 to make Japan “a normal nation” and better ally of Washington. This would be a dangerous mistake.
Japan and Asia deserve better. Abe should be pursuing a more Asian-oriented policy, realizing that his country has to create a peaceful backyard, better prepared to withstand any future Trump tantrums. Abe should be Japan’s man, not Trump’s.
Kevin Rafferty has lived and worked in six Asian countries and reported from Washington under six U.S. presidents.
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