The summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump may have been a success in demonstrating the solid Japan-U.S. alliance in the face of North Korea’s security threat as well as the personal rapport between the two leaders. They confirmed the shared strategy of maximizing international pressures on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. It will likely take more than that, however, to defuse regional tensions raised by Pyongyang’s repeated provocations. During his Asian tour, Trump is urged to also enlist the cooperation of China and Russia in exploring a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Trump’s first visit to Japan since taking office in January, on the first leg of his 12-day tour of Asia, was his fifth direct meeting with Abe. They played golf together and had a steak dinner upon the U.S. president’s arrival here on Sunday. Abe apparently believes that deepening personal ties with the U.S. president contributes to beefing up the bilateral security alliance that serves as a check against the North Korean threat as well as China’s assertive maritime behavior. Trump, who called Japan a “treasured partner and crucial ally” of the United States as he spoke before American troops at Yokota Air Base, said after his talks with Abe on Monday that “I don’t think we’ve ever been closer to Japan than we are right now.”
In sharing the Trump administration’s emphasis on pressure to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile ambitions, Abe has thrown his support behind the U.S. policy that all options, including military strikes, are on the table in the effort to denuclearize North Korea — a position that the prime minister reiterated following his talks with Trump.
True, past dialogues with the North Korean regime have failed to prevent Pyongyang from pursuing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programs — which demonstrated rapid progress in recent months to the point where the country is deemed close to acquiring the technology to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, and its sixth nuclear test in September — possibly that of a hydrogen bomb — was its most powerful explosion to date. At the same time, pressure alone — including tightened economic sanctions — has so far not been able to stop the provocative acts by the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, either.
Meanwhile, an attempt to use a military solution to the crisis — even on a limited scale — risks grave consequences for U.S. allies in the region, Japan and South Korea. A recently published U.S. Congressional Research Service report cited seven military options that the U.S. could take vis-a-vis North Korea, including attacks to eliminate ballistic missile and nuclear facilities, and said that use of military force to remove its nuclear and missile capabilities “would likely entail significant risks” — and that “any move involving military forces” by either the U.S. and South Korea or North Korea “might provoke an escalation of conflict that could have catastrophic consequences for the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the East Asia region.”
Such a scenario must be averted, and if it requires not just pressure but diplomatic talks, then both the U.S. and Japan should explore all avenues for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean crisis, including ones that involve other powers with stakes in Northeast Asian security. Abe said he agreed with Trump that China should play a greater role in dealing with North Korea’s problems. Trump should make that point again when he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping later this week. Abe also said he shared with the U.S. president the view that it is important to create a situation that forces North Korea itself to seek dialogue by offering to change its policies. Either way, the path for a diplomatic solution should be left open.
According to officials, Trump did not take up the issue of a bilateral free trade deal with Japan — toward which Tokyo remains guarded — in his talks with Abe, although the president urged Japan to correct its large trade surplus with the U.S. In a meeting with Japanese and American business leaders Monday morning, Trump reportedly charged that Japan is not conducting “fair and open” trade with the U.S., and said he believes that Tokyo and Washington “will be able to come up with trade deals … that are going to be fair to both countries” and that he had no doubt “it will be done in a quick and a very friendly manner.”
Abe said Tokyo will seek to produce results on economic issues between Japan and the U.S. in the framework of bilateral dialogue led by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Vice U.S. President Mike Pence. It’s time for Tokyo to devise a strategy in dealing with such U.S. demands.
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