By Koya Jibiki, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO — Japan is trying to create diplomatic wiggle room in the face of unpredictable U.S. policies, sending top political aides to a conference celebrating Beijing’s regional ambitions even as Tokyo leans on partners in Europe to help keep Washington in line.
The two-day Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, which began May 14 in Beijing, brought a dazzling list of luminaries, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi — all representatives of countries key to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s global diplomatic offensive.
Abe himself did not go. Japan and the U.S. are leery of supporting Chinese efforts to build a sphere of economic influence in Asia. Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, took charge of the Japanese delegation in the prime minister’s stead. The notably pro-China lawmaker met with Chinese President Xi Jinping after the conference to deliver a letter from Abe, saying May 17 that “spring has come” for the two nations.
Takaya Imai, executive secretary to Abe and his de facto proxy, was also part of the delegation.
For such a team to attend a conference that so symbolizes China’s hopes for greater regional hegemony points to a fundamental shift in the circumstances surrounding Japanese policy toward the powerful neighbor. Until recently, Tokyo and Washington pursued tight coordination on Beijing. Barack Obama’s administration oversaw greater American naval involvement in the Asia-Pacific region, aiming to check Beijing. The U.S.- and Japan-led Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement pursued similar regional control by establishing fair rules for free trade.
President Donald Trump rattled that partnership when he took office in January, quickly pulling the U.S. out of the TPP under his administration’s broader preference for bilateral trade deals. Trump has also toned down criticism of China of late, abandoning allegations of currency manipulation as Washington has sought Beijing’s cooperation in addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development. Some fear that the administration, like Richard Nixon’s in the 1970s, could bring the U.S. much closer to China without consulting Japan.
There is some cause to hope that this will not be the case. Trump and Abe spoke by phone a number of times in April as tensions on the Korean Peninsula deepened, leading sources close to the matter to say the prime minister is among the world leaders Trump trusts most. And former military personnel in the administration, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, are as wary of China as ever. But the government here is well aware of the unpredictability of Trump’s foreign policy.
In a sense, Tokyo’s representatives at the Belt and Road Forum were taking out insurance. Despite looming milestones for Sino-Japanese relations, such as the 45th anniversary of normal diplomatic ties this year and the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 2018, the countries have reached a stalemate of late on such issues as Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Tokyo risks being left behind as Washington and Beijing move closer unless something is done.
Get in line
The Abe government remains cautious about cooperating with Beijing too readily. But “there’s nothing to be gained from unnecessary conflict with China,” a figure close to the prime minister said.
Still, Trump’s softening stance on Beijing could put the U.S. at odds with the efforts at international policy coordination so prized by Japan. Abe and other Group of Seven leaders will work to avoid such a collision when they meet this coming weekend in Taormina, Italy.
This marks Trump’s first G-7 summit and, other leaders hope, a chance to bring him on board with the group consensus on such matters as China. This could improve his standing with such leaders as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has questioned whether the president truly understands the importance of the “values of democracy, freedom, respect for the rule of law and human dignity” at the heart of the G-7.
Abe told Trump in Washington this February that he would like to see the president display leadership at the G-7, offering Japanese support. The prime minister will likely find himself bridging gaps between Trump and others in the group. Only through unity can the organization properly fulfill its goal: guarding the liberal order against the excesses of both Chinese ambitions and the current U.S. president’s own tendency to put America first.