Let’s face it, the past few weeks have not gone especially well for new American President Donald Trump. Instead of looking like the leader of the free world, the head of the most powerful nation on Earth, Trump instead looks in need of a fresh start already — one completely free of his favorite equalizer of choice that always gets him into the most trouble and has many DC-based journalists burning the midnight oil: his mighty Twitter account.
And to make matters worse, most of the mistakes have been his own self-created shenanigans — all very much avoidable.
Take, for example, the latest breaking news from Reuters. It seems the president, in conversations with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, decided to declare the new Start treaty negotiated by the Obama Administration a bad deal — right after he asked his aide, in the middle of the call with the former KGB agent turned Russian strong man — “What is the Start treaty?”
Well, no matter. Trump has a golden opportunity to reset the news cycle and fill the social media universe — which we know he loves — full of positive stories, now that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in the United States for an important multi-day meeting.
“There could not be a better time for this,” explained an administration official, speaking on background. “We know this was a bad week, and this could not be a better opportunity to show what Trump can do when he is focused, working with an ally and partner he believes in — who both have a common vision of international affairs and the future.”
To be fair, the visit for Japan’s prime minister is also of vital importance — perhaps even more so. While new US Defense Secretary Mattis is just back from a visit Japan, Abe will be keen to lock in critical commitments in the flesh from the Donald on two key threats Japan faces: China and North Korea.
For Japan, the DPRK is the ultimate wildcard:
Japan truly inhabits a rough neighborhood — with perhaps the greatest challenge being the ‘hermit kingdom’.
The DPRK has enough firepower — thanks to a growing and evermore sophisticated missile program — to start a major regional incident. And with Pyongyang working on submarines that could take such missiles, likely tipped with an atomic payload, Tokyo needs to make sure it has all the assurances it can get from the American administration in case North Korea ever turned its daily bluster into action.
A Chinese military that can challenge Tokyo:
While it might be debatable which nation has the bigger and badder military, China has certainly made some impressive strides in the past two decades — more than enough to scare Japanese military experts into the firm belief that not only do they need a bigger armed forces, but that the US-Japan alliance must grow even stronger.
Take, for example, China’s deadly missile platforms. Beijing has developed massive amounts of ballistic and cruise missiles that could reign hell on Japanese military installations — especially if done in a surprise attack. As one Japanese senior military official explained to me: “We have no real defense for this — our close geography to China makes defenses of our bases from such an attack very hard to craft.
While we can certainly bulk up our missile defenses, the sheer amount of missiles we would face in a war would be too much to handle alone — we would need our American friends’ help, who share many of these bases, very quickly.” He continued: “China’s military capabilities will only get better as the months and years move on. As Beijing gets stronger, we need to get closer. There is just no other way.”
A positive path forward? Or another misstep?
In speaking to several administration officials as well as senior staff at the Pentagon, all signs point to what many would consider should be a positive vision for the talks, with US officials recognizing the fears Japan has when it comes to its regional challenges. There is even hope to make good on talk of a US-Japan free trade deal and stronger military alliance.
“A US-Japan bilateral free-trade accord won’t be easy to get done,” explained one senior administration staffer, who asked to be kept anonymous, “but we can get it done.”
“The challenge is setting a positive atmosphere for both sides to work towards some of the harder parts of an agreement — where the biggest and third-largest economies can find common ground,” explained the official, noting that the farm lobby in Japan and multiple industries in the US might fight hard against any agreement.
If trade might prove hard to showcase what appears to be the mutual recognition that their common interests are greater than ever before, security issues seem to be where further cooperation can be realized.
“We both face a shared alliance challenge when it comes to Pyongyang and Beijing,” explained a senior Pentagon official. “We need to figure out ways to make this partnership, this alliance, as tight as it can be.”
Another senior retired naval official concurred, but went further, especially when it came to China: “Both of our nations know that without a much more robust US presence in the East Asia region — as well as a bigger Japanese military — China will dominate the region in a decade or less. We need a stronger US-Japan alliance — or else.”
But what will the Donald do?:
While many senior officials in or close to the administration expressed their confidence for a good weekend summit, there is always that unpredictability factor when it comes to Trump — especially on the heels of what by most accounts was a rough exchange with steadfast ally Australia, something no Asia expert here in Washington saw coming.
Maybe one retired Japanese military officer put it just right: “We need to feel confident in Trump — that he will be there with us in a crisis. We need to know we can trust him. Yes, many of us know not to listen to his hot talk — to just pay attention to his actions. However, I have to be clear, it’s a hard thing to do when it’s all over the media, all the time for days on end. Which Trump do we make our decisions based on? Twitter Trump or President Trump?”
And that might be the question we all want answered these days.
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former US President Richard M. Nixon, and Executive Editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. He also serves as fellow at both the Potomac Foundation and the Center for China Policy at the University of Nottingham (UK). He is the author of The Tao of A2/AD: China’s Rationale for the Creation of Anti-Access. In the past Kazianis has led the foreign policy communication efforts of the Heritage Foundation and served as editor-in-chief of the Diplomat and as a fellow at CSIS:PACNET. The views expressed are his own.