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Editorial: Trump, Abe must lead the way to a more stable Asia

The pursuit of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” espoused by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump can contribute to Asian peace and prosperity, but achieving this aim requires the sort of broad-based cooperation that the American leader often scorns.


Opinion is divided on the unusual golf outing with Abe and Japanese professional player Hideki Matsuyama on Nov. 5 that kicked off Trump’s visit. But it seems safe to say that the rapport between “Donald and Shinzo” — as the matching caps Abe presented to Trump put it — has strengthened the alliance.


Japan and the U.S. are confronted with a North Korea that shows no inclination to give up its nuclear and missile programs. Given the contingencies involved, having a robust top-level communications channel between Tokyo and Washington is for the best. Trump and Abe reaffirming their emphasis on pressure rather than dialogue was important, as even some in the U.S. government favor a conciliatory approach to Pyongyang.


THINKING BIG The Abe government’s goals for the summit extended beyond just deepening the friendship between the two leaders. North Korea is far from the only security challenge in East Asia, as China’s growing maritime power stands high on the list as well. Tokyo’s top priority for the Trump visit involved building a regional security framework that will not founder when power changes hands in the U.S. or Japan.


Careful massing of military and economic might is important in diplomacy and security, but big, bold ideas also can provide an edge in geopolitical power games. The Strategic Defense Initiative — a U.S. plan for a space-based missile defense system in the 1980s under then-President Ronald Reagan — was derided as smoke and mirrors, but the proposal ultimately played a role in ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union.


China held an international forum this year for its Belt and Road Initiative. The program to build economic corridors stretching across Asia to Europe, proposed by President Xi Jinping four years ago, has gradually taken on security overtones.


Putting the brakes on these Chinese ambitions will require the U.S., seen as a waning power, to do more than simply talk about involvement in Asia. The situation calls for building a chain of countries, extending from western Asia to the Pacific Ocean, that share the universal values of liberal democracy and a market economy and work together to amplify their influence.


Yet Trump, confident in his negotiating skills, prefers bilateral deal-making to multilateral arrangements — a strategy that does not always benefit America. The U.S. leader was initially disinclined to visit the Philippines during his Asia tour amid friction with President Rodrigo Duterte. And Trump’s poor chemistry with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — including reportedly hanging up the phone on him — has alienated a longtime U.S. ally in the Pacific.


The U.S. and Japan both value maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and the Philippines will remain geopolitically important on this front regardless of whether Duterte is in office.


THE RIGHT DIRECTION Trump’s talk of working toward a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” represents a rare and significant acknowledgment of the need for a multilateral framework. 


It remains unclear whether this understanding will extend to economics, such as a potential return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional trade deal that the U.S. exited after Trump took office. We would like to see Abe continue his efforts to persuade the president to change his mind.


In the summit with Abe and meetings with business leaders, Trump complained that America’s trade relationship with Japan is “not fair,” returning again to the issue of Japan’s chronic surplus. For now, his administration is preoccupied with renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, as well as preparing to discuss revising a bilateral deal with South Korea. But Japan could finds itself in the crosshairs next.


The 11 remaining TPP member nations intend to push forward on bringing the pact into force without the U.S. while leaving the door open for an American return. Japan should encourage disputes involving issues such as intellectual property and internet regulation to be settled via the World Trade Organization. It must also continue working to impress the importance of international cooperation upon a U.S. with a protectionist bent.

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