US Vice-President Mike Pence makes a toast with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a banquet hosted by Abe at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, on February 7, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Kiyoshi Ota
US Vice-President Mike Pence makes a toast with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a banquet hosted by Abe at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, on February 7, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Kiyoshi Ota

Over the past few weeks, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has witnessed a remarkable change of events. Abe should be credited with creating a much warmer working relationship with China following his recent visit to Beijing, while skillfully maintaining Japan’s position as the most important ally of the United States in Asia.

“It is incorrect to see Japan as the only remaining ally of the US in East Asia. It might be tempting to see the ROK [South Korea] as wandering off course, but despite President Moon’s moon-struck views of peace on the peninsula, the basic structure of the US-ROK alliance remain the same,” said Professor William Brooks of the Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies in Washington via email.

“The weaker link is the ROK-Japan relationship, still plagued by historical memories and distrust, which impedes trilateral security cooperation with the US to prepare for a possible Korean Peninsula contingency.”

“Japan has always been the most important ally for America in the region,” said Bates Gill, professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies at Macquarie University in New South Wales, Australia. “But most important does not necessarily equate to closest.”

On his recent trip to Paris and even earlier, US President Donald Trump seemingly went out of his way to irritate, antagonize and alienate the major US allies in Europe after trashing Canada. Now with the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the US seemingly in total disarray – and with Israel speeding towards a change in government – Trump may want to take stock of his treatment of his most important allies – in Asia and elsewhere.

As a well-known and ardent long-time right-wing nationalist, Abe has made an overhaul of Japan’s military posture and its capabilities a vital part of his political agenda. However, he has to be cautious and seen as prudent and not too aggressive.

In other words, Abe’s nationalist zeal risks becoming a display of militarism, which is something all Japanese politicians must avoid at all costs.

By skipping both the ASEAN and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summits and sending US Vice-President Mike Pence instead – following a stopover in Tokyo – Trump’s decision to not attend these key regional summits seemed to be seen as a sign of Trump’s degree of disinterest in Asia and his noticeable detachment from the region.

Did this take some of the wind out of the US’s sails in regards to its talk of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” which Trump heralded at the 2017 APEC summit in Da Nang, Vietnam? This has been duly noted, but is open to debate.

US not ignoring Japan

It meant that Pence had to step up and convince Abe that the US was certainly not ignoring Japan or pushing it off to the sidelines. Nor did Pence rein in Abe as Pence did with South Korean President Moon. Indeed, the US has come to realize that Japan may not agree with the US all the time, but the US will continue to value its strategic, economic and diplomatic partnership with Japan nonetheless.

“This action is more a part of a hedging strategy by Japan. The alliance is very important to Tokyo, but the Trump administration has sent numerous signals that make Japan wonder how dependable the US can be,” said Terry Roehrig, professor of National Security Affairs and the director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the US Naval War College.

“Japan is very wary of China, but also knows that they live in the same neighborhood, have important economic ties and will need to figure out a way to live together. Abe might also be able to play some role as an intermediary – there should be nothing wrong with diplomacy to deal with regional frictions.”

Abe’s efforts to build better diplomatic ties with China are paying off, reducing maritime tensions between the two countries in the East China Sea centered on the Senkaku Islands that both countries claim in the process.

“The territorial dispute, as a permanent structural issue, has only been neutralized for the time being and could flare up at any time, as it has in the past,” said Brooks.

Much hinges on how far President Trump is willing to go with respect to his hawkish and confrontational showdown with Beijing.

“The summitry between President Trump and President Xi has always been the wild card. No one knows what will emerge from the summit talks between the two leaders at the upcoming G20 meeting,” said Brooks.

“Even if Trump intends to stick to his hardline trade posture, he could be persuaded by Xi to make some kind of concessional deal. Or, coaxed by his trade advisers, he might take a harder line, a la VP Pence’s recent speeches, heading toward a Cold War scenario that some analysts fear might already be underway.”

Although Pence may have been perceived as going to Japan to browbeat Abe and Japanese automakers into either accepting the new terms the US drafted on the imports of Japanese cars and auto parts or risk having new tariffs imposed on them, at almost the same time as he sat down in Tokyo with the Japanese, the Trump administration postponed the auto tariffs.

As Governor of Indiana back in 2015, Pence was the lead player in convincing Subaru of America to build their only auto assembly plant in his home state. Trump may have forgotten this fact.

As for the Japanese public, they were probably paying much more attention to the blow delivered to the Japanese economy by the string of natural disasters that struck the country recently than to Pence’s visit. Or more likely, the Japanese were jubilant and duly distracted by the 5-1 victory of a Japanese baseball all-star team over a US all-star team in a six-game series in Japan that was played during Pence’s visit.

US expects expanded security posture

While Japan’s reinterpretation of collective self-defense in 2014 pleased the US, the US expects to see Japan expand its security posture even more.

“Japan has been taking incremental steps in this direction but limits remain, including budget constraints and domestic opposition. Much will depend on Japan’s assessment of the security environment,” said Roehrig.

Trump cannot ignore the fact that the Japanese Ministry of Defense’s 2018 defense budget request for the procurement of US military products was up 34% over the 2017 requested amount. The equipment in question includes F-35s, Ospreys and the Global Hawk, an unmanned surveillance aircraft that was practically forced on Japan, even though MOD officials initially did not like the price, which was 25% higher than the US originally quoted.

“The US is more interested in selling Japan expensive weaponry and equipment. The Abe administration has been bending budgetary discretion rules to accommodate the US,” said Brooks. “Japan has been also hit with sticker shock from the price of the planned introduction of two Aegis ashore systems, at about $3.6 billion, or double now from the original US estimated sales cost.

“Abe is likely to grin and bear the price hikes, even though some of his advisers say that there are other needs for the SDF such as enhanced training than rampant spending on overpriced US goods. They also argue that by the time the systems are deployed, 2023, North Korea may no longer be the threat that they were intended to counter.”

At the same time, Abe has a set of advanced weaponry plans of his own, and some are controversial.

“The National Security Council’s secretariat, taking cues from Abe, has taken the lead in selecting weapons, upsetting the LDP that used to have such a prerogative. In December 2017, then Defense Minister Onodera announced plans, contained in the defense budget draft, to introduce three types of long-range cruise missiles, capable of reaching North Korea,” said Brooks.

“Some in MOD and the LDP are concerned that such missiles would potentially violate Japan’s ‘exclusively defense only’ protocol. Similar criticism has come from some analysts about the Abe administration’s plan to convert the MSDF destroyer Izumo into an aircraft carrier.”

US looks to Australia, South Korea

According to Roehrig, the alliance with Japan is central to the US presence in Asia, but Australia is also a very important ally and it is a mistake to start writing off South Korea.

“There is certainly a good deal of potential for friction between Seoul and Washington over the denuclearization of North Korea, but much remains to be seen regarding how this all plays out in the months ahead,” said Roehrig. “This is certainly a crucial time for careful alliance management, but this is not the end of the alliance.

“It is also important to remember that despite the US alliances with Japan and South Korea being separate, bilateral alliances, they have always been linked and that has not changed.”

Infrastructure projects in the region abound, and Japan has signed on recently with China and its BRI, with Australia and the US last summer and now again with the US as part of the new US International Development FinanceCorporation (USIDFC), created under the bipartisan BUILD Act.

Pence highlighted the new US alternative to China’s BRI, under the USIDFC. The new $60 billion initiative will support private investments for infrastructure projects around the world.

“PM Abe is clearly playing a double-hedge game. Priority one is to maintain good alliance relations. But given uncertainties in relations with the US and some new opportunities arising with China, he is looking to make some gains with China,” said Gill.

“The Japanese – including Abe himself – recognize that he has one of the best relationships with Trump of any major world leader. But the upshot is, while this suggests that Abe is nearly alone among world leaders to have established this kind of rapport with the US president, the Japanese understand this is a low bar and in the end may mean little depending on the mood of the American leader.”

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