Just as journalists unearth bigger truths by following the money, much can be discerned from world leaders’ phone calls.
Following news of North Korea’s sixth nuclear test over the weekend, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talked with U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Predictable, given that close ties with the presidents of the United States and Russia are top priorities of his prime ministership. But wouldn’t this have been a perfect moment to phone Chinese President Xi Jinping? After all, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un didn’t troll Japan or America with this latest act. The show of force was for Xi’s China.
Sunday’s test crossed Beijing’s red line. China is reasonably tolerant of Kim’s missiles, even those that fly over Hokkaido. It loathes nuclear tests on its border. And the timing of Kim’s provocative act, just as Xi’s Communist Party was detailing plans for its twice-a-decade congress, is no accident. It came, too, just hours before Xi addressed leaders from Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa visiting China for a BRICS summit.
Kim’s likely message to Xi: If you think working with the United Nations will stop our nukes, think again. The point here, and the danger, is that Trump thinks Kim’s nuclear test is all about him. Trump thinks his “fire and fury” histrionics will scare Xi into curbing Kim. More likely, Kim’s moves are aimed at embarrassing Xi — letting the world know China isn’t his puppet master. They also may be aimed at prodding Xi to encourage Trump to talk to Pyongyang, something Kim very much desires.
There are no military options that don’t leave tens of thousands — or far more — dead. The most plausible way forward is the U.S. accepting the reality that Pyongyang has nuclear warheads capable of reaching Americans shores and working from there. Who better to convince Trump of this inconvenient truth than Abe, the U.S. president’s most loyal friend among world leaders? No one has done more to compliment and normalize Trump’s erratic presidency. Abe should cash in that chip.
Abe should reach out to Xi, too. What a perfect opportunity to compartmentalize controversies and cooperate with Beijing. Tokyo wags claim that might irk Trump, but Japan is both a sovereign nation and directly in Kim’s line of fire. It’s one thing to have an intercontinental ballistic missile that might be able to reach U.S. soil. The risk of missing makes U.S. ally Japan is a safer target for Pyongyang. Hence the missile drills at Japanese schools.
What’s more, this isn’t just a White House in chaos, but one that doesn’t think straight. Trump taking his anger out on South Korea for the North’s actions Sunday is just, well, weird. By threatening to kill the five-year-old Korean-U.S. free trade deal and accusing Seoul of “appeasement,” Trump is alienating a trusted friend at the worst possible moment. He’s also signaling to Abe that Japan could be next in line for a Twitter attack.
What can Abe do? Tokyo can surely work with Trump on an oil embargo, a step that pushes China, the source of about 85 percent of North Korea’s trade, into a corner. It can bolster military deterrence, like welcoming U.S.-designed Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, systems.
Abe also should stop outsourcing Tokyo’s brain to this erratic White House. Michael Hayden, former head of America’s National Security Agency, told CNN he’s baffled by Trump gratuitously slapping South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a leader whose help Washington needs more than ever. Hayden called it an “unforced error” that’s “wrong on the merits.” It’s also a reminder that loyalty isn’t Trump’s forte.
Trump’s inexperience and penchant for showcasing it on Twitter pose their own existential threat to Abe’s agenda, if not his nation. Tokyo should be using every opportunity to educate Trump on why Pyongyang will be preoccupying American presidents and Japanese prime ministers long after Trump and Abe leave office. And why it’s unwise to attack the partners you need to keep Americans safe. Yesterday it was China. Today it’s South Korea. Next week it could easily be Japan.
Kim crossing Beijing’s red line, Hayden says, “gives us an opportunity here to try to cooperate with the Chinese to try to get the region to do more.” Abe could get things rolling and mark the beginning of the end of the Japan-China cold war with a single phone call.
Tokyo-based journalist William Pesek is the author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.”