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Opinion: What was behind the success of the Japan-U.S. summit?

By Kunihiko Miyake


Has there ever been any Japan-U.S. summit in the past where the two leaders were in such complete agreement on the East Asia situation?


I was involved in Japan-U.S. security relations at the Foreign Ministry for 10 years and cannot recall any off the top of my head. The focus of the Ron-Yasu (President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone) relationship in the 1980s was the Soviet threat, while the Bush-Koizumi relationship in the 2000s was about the war against terrorism. What was the reason behind the agreement reached without any surprises with Trump, who is known for making rash remarks, not only on North Korea policy, but also on the concept of “free and open Indo-Pacific” long promoted by Japan?


The personal relationship between the two leaders is certainly important, but this success cannot possibly be attributed solely to their playing golf together because international relations are not that simple.


The following statement by Trump’s national security adviser at a news conference held shortly before his Asian tour says it all: “The President will use whatever language he wants to use and his rhetoric will reassure our friends and allies greatly.”


If I were to interpret this statement, I would say this is what he was trying to convey: “I’m not sure what the President will say, but the rhetoric we develop at the National Security Council is U.S. policy, so our allies can rest assured.” The keyword is “reassurance.”


There are three tendencies in the Trump administration’s East Asia policy.


The first one is Trump-style isolationism in the form of the inward-looking “America First” policy. The second one is the opposite — international involvement, which is traditional mainstream U.S. diplomatic policy. This tendency can be divided further into two, revolving around the question of whether to prioritize and reassure China or reassure the U.S. allies.


Advocates of prioritizing the U.S. allies have been gaining ground since the second Obama administration, but there are also proponents of China’s priority in the Trump administration. These three factions should be viewed as being in a relationship of tension in the administration.


What is surprising is that the advocates of prioritizing U.S. allies are pinning their hopes on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The fact that Trump listens to Abe’s opinion gives them an advantage.


Fortunately, it would seem that the “America First” policy has been contained and the policy of prioritizing the allies has an advantage at present, at least as indicated by media reports. The above statement of the national security adviser was symbolic of this trend.


According to him, Trump has three goals for his Asian tour: the denuclearization of North Korea, an open and free Indo-Pacific, and fair and reciprocal trade. While China was not named, it is a common factor of all three. The Japan-U.S. summit and the joint news conference held after the meeting indeed show that traditional mainstream U.S. diplomacy was reflected in the area of security, with a dash of Trump’s “America First” policy in economics and trade. Despite concerns voiced before the summit, trade issues mostly fell within the realm of expectations.


The “Indo-Pacific” is a concept that certain experts have long advocated. It is also one of Abe’s pet projects. In essence, it refers to free and open seas, the rule of law, and freedom of navigation and flight. Needless to say, what the two countries have in mind is the South China Sea, where China is moving ahead with its military control.


China is also the main target in trade. There is a subtle difference in what the White House and the State Department are saying. The State Department uses the term “results-oriented” instead of “reciprocity.” This alone would indicate the State Department’s very delicate position in the administration.


Finally, I would like to comment on a U.S. military attack on North Korea. Strictly speaking, there are three types of U.S. attacks: First, a “counterattack for self-defense” in response to an actual attack by North Korea; second, a “preemptive attack” in the face of an imminent attack from North Korea; and third, a “preventive attack” to stop the DPRK’s nuclear development in the absence of any concrete threat. At this point, the Defense Department has not shown any signs of studying these options.


There is no need to panic. Now is the time to increase pressure. However, Trump is unlikely to make any significant achievements in his visits to the ROK and China. Therefore, the Japan-U.S. relationship is likely to continue to be the axis of the Trump administration’s East Asia policy.


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