Late last year I spent some time with a former chief of China’s military intelligence, a bruiser with an ax to grind against the United States. Halfway through a long tirade about America’s alleged abuse of its global power, he interrupted himself and said: “There’s one thing we appreciate about America, though. You keep the Japanese away from us.”
Some Asian countries abhor American power, some like it, and some live with it reluctantly. But they all have one thing in common: They trust the United States of America more than they trust each other. There’s no regional balance-of-power arrangement that could replace America as a strategic buffer.
That’s why Donald Trump’s April 29 suggestion that Japan and South Korea should acquire nuclear weapons was the craziest single statement on foreign policy of any major American presidential candidate since the Second World War. “You have so many countries already — China, Pakistan, you have so many countries, Russia — you have so many countries right now that have them,” said Trump. “Now, wouldn’t you rather, in a certain sense, have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?”
Trump’s April 29 foreign policy address made some good points, or rather points that would have been good if they had been in a different speech by a different candidate. But the core of the speech was Trump’s narcissistic claim that he would negotiate a “great deal” for the United States with its Russian and Chinese rivals. You don’t start negotiations by pouring gasoline around the conference table and flicking a cigarette lighter. Trump can’t un-ring that bell. Any negotiations he were to undertake in Asia would be a disaster.
It is perhaps China’s greatest nightmare: a nuclear-armed Japan. Permanently anchored off the Asian mainland, bristling with nuclear weapons, a nuclear Japan would make China’s security situation much more complex than it is now, and force China to revise both its nuclear doctrine and increase its nuclear arsenal. To be perfectly clear, Japan has no intention of building nuclear weapons. In fact, it has a strong aversion to nukes, having been the only country to actually be on the receiving end of a nuclear strike on its cities. Japan’s strategic situation would have to grow very dire for it to undertake such a drastic and expensive option. At the same time, China has no interest in provoking Japan into building them. China’s nuclear “no first use” policy is in part aimed at reassuring Japan that, unless it were attacked first with nuclear weapons, it will not use them in wartime.
Trump understands nothing about China. “China respects strength and by letting them take advantage of us economically, which they are doing like never before, we have lost all of their respect,” he said on April 29. The merits of this claim are beside the point (China’s real effective exchange rate has risen by 40% since 2009, not fallen as Trump alleged). China’s first three priorities are security, security, and security. Its economy comes far down the list. If China believes that it faces an existential threat by the adversary that devastated it between 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria, and 1945, when America won the Pacific war, it will make any sacrifice it thinks necessary in order to prevail.
Beijing will never believe that Trump is merely a blithering, blathering ignoramus. In China’s imperial system, every public statement is weighed carefully, for words cannot be retracted. The Chinese will remember that Trump proposed to put nuclear weapons into the hands of the Japanese and treat him as a dangerous enemy. And the consequences for Asian and American security will be dire.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.