Donald Trump's Japan visit indicates growing unpredictability in relations between Washington and Tokyo

US president Donald Trump touched down on Japanese soil on Sunday marking the beginning of his 12-day Asia trip amid tensions over North Korea at fever pitch. The decision to visit Tokyo before calling on China's Xi Jinping indicates a rapidly-changing relationship between the US and Japan in terms of military security and bilateral ties in the 21st Century.

Within hours of his landing, the golfing buddies tweeted images of their nine-hole encounter, with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe saying the "relaxed" nature of their game allowed them to have "candid" discussions on some "difficult" issues.

The "difficult" issues he may be referring to is the North Korea threat, of course, and the uncertain US foreign policy on Asia.

When Trump ran for president, he vowed a more "unpredictable" foreign policy. Mission accomplished, if the mood in Asia ahead of his first presidential trip to the region was any indication. Much like the prelude to a bruising typhoon, Trump's upcoming visit has inspired fear, resignation, indignation, morbid curiosity — even, according to one South Korean politician, as per AP, feelings of national disgrace.

According to Timethe present US administration appears disinterested in securing its position as Asia's economic, political and security leader, which China is trying to become.

During his first months as president, Trump, who will also visit South Korea and China before attending regional summits in Vietnam and the Philippines, has blended moments of flattery with vows to rip up trade deals, destroy a sovereign nation with nuclear weapons and generally crash long-standing norms of diplomacy anywhere it suits his aims. The uncertainty over how he plans to deal with North Korea, whether through war or diplomacy, has left regional countries — including Japan, the world's third largest economy — confused.

Importance of US-Japan ties

Japan has been, historically and strategically, a crucial partner for US. In a sense, it has acted as a window for US to consolidate its presence in Asia among emerging, belligerent nations like China and North Korea. With this view, the Barack Obama administration helped negotiate the 11-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to boost trade ties between the nations.

However, when Trump was elected as president, he was quick to decry the TPP in favour of bilateral agreements between countries and later withdrawing from it. He lashed out at the trade relationship with Japan on Monday, saying it had been "winning" for decades at the expense of the United States.

President Donald Trump, left, shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a joint news conference on Monday. AP

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe during a joint news conference on Monday. AP

"We want fair and open trade but right now our trade with Japan is not fair and open," Trump told business leaders adding it will have to be renegotiated albeit in a friendly manner.

Despite this, Abe knows US is an ally he cannot afford to displease. A crucial element of the relationship between the two countries is the "Security Treaty Between the United States and Japan". Brought in under former president Dwight D Eisenhower, the treaty, formerly known as "Treaty of Mutual Cooperation between the United States and Japan", stated that Japan grant US the rights to establish a military presence in the Far East and prohibited Japan from providing other foreign powers the permission to build military bases without the US' consent.

The treaty makes Japan a cornerstone for US defence strategy and provides unparalleled access to Asia. As per this The Diplomat report, the Japanese archipelago houses more than 50,000 US military and civilian personnel and pays Washington $2 billion per year to offset the costs. It acts a stabilising agent in the Asian economy, therein boosting the US economy as well.

Trump criticised the treaty during his campaign and later changed his tune and called it "the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Pacific region," according to the Nikkei Asian ReviewJim Mattis, on his first trip to Japan after taking over the Pentagon, appeared eager to reassure Tokyo of Washington's resolve in February when he assured Abe to uphold the mutual treaty.

“I want to make certain that Article 5 of our mutual defense treaty is understood to be as real to us today as it was a year ago, five years ago - and as it will be a year, and 10 years, from now,” Mattis had said. Article 5 obliges the United States to defend territories under Japanese administrative control.

Japan had been keen for assurances that Trump’s administration would adhere to Washington’s commitment to defend the disputed East China Sea islands that are under Japanese control but claimed also by China. Patrol ships and fighter jets from Japan and China routinely shadow each other near the islands, called the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese.

Trump-Abe bonhomie

Following the end of the Cold War, Japan had been eager to forge strong allies with US. Japan knows US is its biggest supporter and needs it as much as the other way round. Perhaps its for this reason that Abe met with Trump in New York after the election in November and called him a “trustworthy leader”.

“The Japan-US alliance has been, is and will be the cornerstone of our country’s diplomatic and security policies. This is an immutable principle,” Abe had said in his policy speech at the start of the regular parliament session in January this year. He was one of the first to pay court to (then president-elect) Trump, eager to forge a bond with Tokyo's crucial ally. Trump, in turn, raised an issue important to Abe: North Korea's past abductions of Japanese citizens.

From golf to private dinners to an audience with the emperor, Trump's Japan "visit is designed to not only offer visual evidence of the close partnership, but also to avoid any uncomfortable issues, such as trade," Daniel Sneider, an East Asia specialist at Stanford University, wrote recently, according to AP.

Abe's "senior advisers claim to wield an influence over Trump that is the envy of other US allies," Sneider said. "But that relationship depends on Abe consciously avoiding any challenge to Trump's policies. Does his influence disappear the moment he crosses Trump?" On Monday, Abe declared his support Trump's policy that all options are on the table in dealing with North Korea, reported AFP.

Can Donald Trump be trusted?

As it is evidently known, Trump is unpredictable in his decisions and actions. He trashed the TPP, gone back and forth on the US' NATO committments and has threatened to tear up the Iran nuclear deal. With this knowledge, Japan is cautious, if not fearful, if Trump might choose to turn the US-Japan security alliance on its head and harm Tokyo in the wake of a possible nuclear missile heading its way.

President Donald Trump speaks at the joint press conference at the Akasaka Palace on Monday. AP

President Donald Trump speaks at the joint press conference at the Akasaka Palace on Monday. AP

As per Trump itinerary, while he will be attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Vietnam and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting to mark 40 years of the US-ASEAN relations, there is no mention of him attending the East Asia Summit (EAS). The Trump administration has not yet appointed a permanent Assistant Secretary of State for the Asia-Pacific, according to Time. It has also not named any nominee for Ambassador to ASEAN. All of this seems to indicate US' declining interest in the region.

As The Diplomat notes, leaders in Asia are looking for answers to crucial questions such as "Can he (Trump) be trusted? Can he provide reassurance that the United States will remain engaged in Asia-Pacific? Or will his ‘chop and change’ brand of strategic uncertainty become the new normal?"

It's something of a marvel then that despite Trump's unpredictability and the torpedoing of an Obama-era trade deal, there are some who feel there may actually be more continuity than change in Washington's Asia policy.

"People joke that Wagner's music is better than it sounds. The same can be said for Trump's Asia policy and relationships," longtime Asia analyst Ralph Cossa told AP, referring to the notoriously complex German composer. "This will be put to the test when he goes to Asia, but I think the visit is likely to be more successful than many fear or predict."

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Nov 06, 2017 14:55 PM

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