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Waiting for Trump, with Abe first in line

Nov 21. 2016
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By The Nation

Amid worries over trade and security, the Japanese premier learns little from a get-acquainted chat

When United States President-elect Donald Trump met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York last week, many thought Tokyo’s timely move might help ease Asian anxieties. Instead, it produced nothing of real substance.

Trump’s ambiguous policies towards Asia in terms of politics, the economy and security have created uncertainty here as to whether the US will continue to be a reliable ally.

Trump said during his campaign that Asian nations might need to share more of the “burden” of mutual security arrangements. He has also vowed to pull the US out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) championed by his predecessor and has called China an economic threat to the West.

His first meeting with a foreign leader – the sit-down with Abe at Trump Tower in Manhattan on November 17 – didn’t make matters any clearer. All that Abe offered after their 90-minute talk was that he was confident Trump would be a “trustworthy leader”. He felt “sure we can build a relationship of trust”, he said. “I shared my basic views with Mr Trump. We discussed a variety of issues.”

It would have been unrealistic to expect such an informal chat with a leader-in-waiting to produce any concrete outcome. Members of Abe’s team who attended stressed that the main purpose of the mission was to let the two men get to know each other. There was concern on Tokyo’s part that the meeting not show disrespect to incumbent President Barack Obama – and awareness that Trump had yet to name any cabinet members who might help formulate Asia policy.

But the Japanese must have wanted the meeting to take place quickly – before Trump began settling on policies – since they have more than most to lose if Trump’s avowed isolationist vision of America becomes a reality in January. Since the end of World War II the US military’s intimidating presence in the Pacific has contributed greatly to the security of not only Japan but every non-communist nation in Northeast and Southeast Asia. A dramatic change in the status quo would have serious implications given China’s swelling influence and the perilous belligerence of North Korea. A strong US-Japan security alliance is crucial to maintaining order in the region, from the Korean Peninsula to the East and South China Seas, particularly with tensions steadily rising amid doubts about America’s commitment.

The Abe administration has made radical strides in giving Japan a far greater role in regional and international stability. The Legislation for Peace and Security enacted in March has put its Self-defence Force at the forefront of global peacekeeping. That proactive stance came out of the alliance with the US, since few officials in Tokyo believed the country was ready to tackle the mission on its own.

Just as worrying for Abe is Trump’s promise to abandon the TPP, to which Japan is a signatory and which Abe has vocally endorsed. If the trade pact withers due to American disinterest, Asian attention would shift to Beijing-led schemes for economic cooperation, he has warned, and China is no friend of Japan.

Japan is among 12 members that have signed up for the TPP, the others including our Southeast Asian neighbours Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. They’re counting on the globe-spanning partnership with Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Australia and New Zealand to give them a decisive economic advantage, but it will come to nought if the US declines to pursue it.

Abe offered no clue after their meeting as to whether Trump had reassurances for him about the TPP, but other officials in Tokyo expressed pessimism about the deal’s future and said alternative scenarios were being weighed.

This is the state of a world on the cusp of sweeping change.

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