Who is the biggest threat to Japan right now — Kim Jong Un or Donald Trump? Welcome to Shinzo Abe’s hell, as he grapples with two erratic leaders vying for his attention.
The U.S. president has Abe’s loyalty. Abe’s sprint to Trump Tower shortly after the New Yorker’s shock election in November won the prime minister a place in his heart. And, hopefully, a reprieve on Trump’s itchy trade-war finger. But the North Korean leader is winning the news cycle, most recently with an intercontinental ballistic missile that may have landed within 200 nautical miles of Japan’s coast. That trolled Trump to give Xi Jinping the Jeff Sessions treatment on Twitter.
Trump berating China’s president for inaction in ways reminiscent of his 140-character attacks on U.S. Attorney General Sessions won’t work. Xi knows he’ll be at the helm long after the Trump circus leaves Washington and historians file it under “cautionary tales.” But here’s something that might work: Abe trolling Beijing into docking Kim’s allowance. Not via tweets, but by announcing Japan will host a series of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems.
That would serve two purposes. The first, obviously, is basic survival. Japan already has a two-step missile defense shield, but Pyongyang’s steady progress on ICBM capabilities calls for reinforcements, including the U.S.-built THAAD. In the months before she resigned on Friday, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada visited Guam to see America’s Aegis Ashore weapons-interception system.
Let’s face it, if Kim fired off a desperation nuke — say, if Trump suddenly attacked — Japan is the target. Seoul is too close and Los Angeles is a gamble. The Japanese mainland is a virtually assured hit on a U.S. ally. This point dawned on Japan inhabitants in late April, when Tokyo Metro began halting its subway service in response to Kim’s ballistic missile launches. When Kim tested another ICBM on Friday, Abe was quick to condemn the act. With all due respect, though, what else is new? Like Kim cares.
Kim and Xi would care greatly about the second objective of Abe welcoming THAAD systems: changing a key element of the status quo in North Asia and prompting re-evaluations of strategies.
The biggest reason Abe hasn’t said yes to THAAD — it would infuriate Beijing — is the best argument for it. Watching how Xi’s team retaliated against South Korea — banning tour groups, denying visas for K-pop singers, shuttering Lotte stores and prompting Seoul to suspend construction. Mainland tourism is one of the elements of Abenomics that’s really working. Yet somehow the lost GDP argument holds little sway against an existential threat 1,270 km away from Tokyo.
After China calmed down over Abe’s THAAD gambit, Xi might realize the extent to which he needs to get serious about Kim. Granted, Trump’s view that Xi can snap his fingers and toss the Dear Leader from office or get him to give up his nukes is beyond naive. But sanctions mean little as border cities like Dandong exist that enable Kim to flout trade curbs thrive. Hence Trump’s focus on so-called secondary sanctions targeting Chinese factories acting as physical loopholes for Pyongyang to fill its coffers.
Bill Bishop, a Washington-based China expert, figures another round of secondary sanctions “with more teeth and targeted at more institutions and individuals” is coming. But as he tells U.S. news and information website Axios, “another round of incremental sanctions is unlikely to move Beijing from its usual response of calling for calm and talks. Grim and going to get grimmer.”
All the more reason for Abe to go the THAAD route to get Xi’s attention. Abe’s sliding approval ratings must have him mulling his legacy. It’s sure not going to be an economy that, nearly five years in, is still struggling with deflation, stagnant wages and a dearth of game-changing startups. History will look kindly upon Abe if he helps prod Xi to stop enabling Kim’s worst impulses. Holding THAAD construction over Xi’s head — and the specter of greater U.S. surveillance power in North Asia — could be the wake-up call Xi needs. “If China is as worried as they think they are about THAAD in South Korea, they will go crazy when Japan has a THAAD system,” Mike Chinoy, senior fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, told CNN.
Fresh thinking would go a long way, too. When Kim launched his ICBM Friday, Abe and Trump got on the phone. Really, Abe should’ve called South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Sure, Tokyo objects to Moon resurrecting Seoul’s 1998-2008 “Sunshine policy” of detente on the Korean Peninsula. But why not try a good-cop/bad-cop routine on both Pyongyang and Beijing? Seeing Abe and Moon working together toward North Asian peace would be its own nightmare for Xi. In this case, Moon could extend the carrots, while Trump wields the sticks and Abe acts as regional deputy.
The costs of a military strike would be too great in terms of lost lives and market chaos to contemplate (fingers crossed that Trump understands this). The results from sanctions and rhetorical threats, meanwhile, are too few. It’s time world leaders tried something else, and Abe could be the man for the job.
Tokyo-based journalist William Pesek is the author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.”