Why Trump will commit to Asia first . . .

Florence Chong's picture

DONALD TRUMP is listening – and providing assurances. There are issues of more immediate economic and political relevance to the U.S. in Asia today than there are in Europe, and a Tokyo-Washington axis beckons, with China as an interested party . . .

NO-ONE SHOULD underestimate the significance of Donald Trump’s phone call to China’s leader, Xi Jinping, just hours before he wined and dined Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Washington.
 Xi got the call nearly three weeks after Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States. It was a call preceded by an apparently unsigned letter delivered to the Chinese leader long after Trump had spoken to his counterparts in other key nations around the world. 
 For those who search for signs and signals in trying to read into the complicated geopolitical power-play now under way in Asia, the diplomacy of a timely call to Xi may well signal Trump’s acknowledgement that while there may be a natural alignment of interests between Washington and Tokyo, China should be part of the equation.   
Abe left Washington assured of an “unwavering bond” with the U.S.
Said Trump: “We have developed a great friendship. We have good chemistry.”
Abe even referred to his U.S. opposite number by his Christian name, Donald, when answering media questions at a joint press conference in the White House.
Such warmth on display between Trump and Abe came as a reassurance not just to Japan but to the rest of Asia, which have been looking for signs of America’s re-engagement with Asia. Prospects of a retreat into Fortress USA alarms America’s allies in Asia.
Trump has recommitted to the US military role in Asia-Pacific.
 Abe put aside for the moment the more controversial issues of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which Japan holds dear, and the current weakness of the yen.
 Trump has not backed away from his view that a weak currency upsets the level playing field for U.S. companies in international trade.
 Instead, the two leaders focussed on broader global and regional issues, bonding over the golf course and forging a close friendship over dinner with their spouses at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida.
  “Of course, we are fully aware of President Trump’s decision,” Abe said when asked about the TPP.
“In Asia Pacific region, Japan and U.S. should take the leadership to create a free and fair market based upon rules.  I and President Trump have confirmed our strong will to do so.”
Then, perhaps in a direct rub at China: “Of course, it must be done in a fair manner.  Never should a State-owned company, backed by State capital, make any form of economic intervention.  A free ride on intellectual property should not be condoned.”
As for Japan and United States, said Abe, trade and investment, as well as economic relations, could develop and grow.
 Abe said he was “quite optimistic” of good results under a new framework for dialogue to be developed jointly by Deputy Prime Minister Aso and Vice President Pence.  Trump and Abe have relegated difficult bilateral issues to their deputies.
 Abe underlined the strength of Japan’s investment record in the U.S., pointing out that, last year alone, Japan invested US150 billion, and had created many thousands of jobs.  He offered Japanese participation and investment in infrastructure, technology and energy.
 Abe said: “With President Trump taking on the leadership, I'm sure that major-scale infrastructure investment will be made, including the fast-speed train.”
 He promoted Japanese technology and capacity and singled out the Japanese Shinkansen. “From Washington, D.C. to New York, where Trump Tower exists, would be only one hour if you ride the Maglev train,” he said through an interpreter.
 It is worth noting that China is Japan’s biggest rival in the field of high-speed trains. And that Japan firmly believes China stole its technology.
 Trump, at the media conference, described the US-Japan alliance as a cornerstone of peace and stability, and assured Abe of his country’s commitment to Japan’s defence.
 “We are committed to the security of Japan and all areas under its administrative control,” Trump said, a reference to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by China.
 Said Abe: “The cornerstone of peace and prosperity in Asia-Pacific is a strong Japan-U.S. alliance.  This is unwavering ties between our two countries.  I and President Trump will work together to further strengthen our alliance.  We share this strong resolve.”
  Abe also said the leaders had confirmed that US-Japan Security Pact Article 5 (which deals with armed attacks by a third party) will be applied to the Senkaku Islands, and that the United States will strengthen its presence in the region.
 These are welcoming statements from Japan, which hosts U.S. troops in Okinawa at a political cost to its Government because of local opposition to their presence.
 During the U.S. election campaign, Trump said bluntly that some Asian allies (meaning Japan and South Korea) should help bear some of the cost of security provided by the U.S. There is no disputing that both North Asia and Southeast Asia have prospered under the U.S. security umbrella.
 “Under the banner of the proactive contribution to peace, Japan will play a greater role,” said Abe. 
The two spoke of North Korea and the need to curb that country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.  They also agreed on freedom of navigation and rule of law in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean.
 Such a positive exchange of views between Abe and Trump will play well into domestic Japanese politics.
 Abe wasted no time in making his trip to Washington to meet Trump – as the first Asian leader to call on the incoming President and only the second leader from a major country (after Britain’s Theresa May) to meet personally with him.
 With so much at stake at the moment, it was Abe’s second trip to the U.S. in less than two months.  He was last in Hawaii with President Barack Obama commemorating the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbour on December 26.