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Trump's symbolic trip to Japan

November 4, 2017

Donald Trump's first stop in Japan on his maiden voyage to Asia as US president is an opportunity to underline Washington's alliance with Japan and reassure US allies on opposing North Korea. Julian Ryall reports.

USA Trump und Abe in Mar-A-Lago
Image: picture alliance/dpa/S. Shimbun

An air exercise by US bombers over the Korean Peninsula on Thursday highlights that when US President Donald Trump arrives in Japan on Sunday, regional security will be at the top of the agenda.

Trump is scheduled to begin his three-day visit to Japan by playing a round of golf with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The meeting with Abe will tee off Trump's 12-day Asian tour - including stops in Seoul, Beijing, Vietnam and meetings with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Manila.

Analysts anticipate that Trump will use every opportunity to reiterate the need to ensure lasting security in the region and will highlight the threat that North Korea poses to that ambition.

During an interview with US broadcaster Fox News on Thursday, Trump warned that Japan was a "warrior nation" that, if forced to, could take matters on North Korea into its own hands.

"Japan is a warrior nation, and I tell China and I tell everyone else that listens … you're gonna have yourself a big problem with Japan pretty soon if you allow this to continue with North Korea," Trump said during a lengthy interview.

USA Treffen Donald Trump und Shinzo Abe
Abe was the first world leader to meet with then president-elect Trump in November 2016Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Cabinet Public Relations Office/Ho

A unique alliance with Japan?

"He is going to arrive in Tokyo and stress that the US is a close and reliable ally to Japan, and I think that message will be stronger here than on any other leg of his Asia tour," Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, told DW.

Samada added that just a few days ago, South Korean President Moon Jae In announced that he would never allow Trump to carry out military operations against North Korea without his explicit consent, which has angered conservatives in the US. Samada continued to say that North Korea is close to being able to deploy missiles that can be fitted with nuclear warheads and can reach targets in the United States.

"Abe is the only leader of the Group of Seven nations who has expressed his emphatic support for the US president and the military actions that he considers appropriate," said Samada.

Read more: Pence: Talks between US and Japan could lead to free trade deal

"It is, of course, desirable to avoid a military confrontation, but if that does become necessary, I believe that Japan should do everything it can to support the US," Shimada said.

Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Japan's Daito Bunka University, agrees that security and defense issues will dominate discussions in Japan, adding that the US leader "is not coming to talk about the intricacies of policy."

"This whole East Asia tour is designed to show that the US is still engaged with the region, even though Trump himself has not appeared to be engaged in policies that impact the region," Mulloy told DW. "Clearly the most important issue will be North Korea, and I expect his visit here to be largely symbolic, a show of solidarity with Japan and the reiteration of bilateral cooperation in order to defend against North Korea," Mulloy said.

Read more: In Asia, Donald Trump must act as US explainer-in-chief

Japan, China and Trump

Abe will also be extremely keen to get an expression of support - even if it is only in private - from the US leader on the question of multilateral territorial disputes with Beijing in both the South China and East China seas, but he may be disappointed, Mulloy added.

"Trump was highly critical of China earlier in his administration, but that has been replaced by a wish to engage with Beijing," he said. "He sees international relations as essentially the same process as doing business and he overlooks the fact that there are long-standing and strategic interests in play."

"Trump is likely to be overly impressed and wowed by his reception in China, and there is concern in Japan that if this US administration is stepping up engagement with Beijing, then what are the end goals? If Trump believes he is going to convince China to modify its behavior over the disputed islands, for example, in the South China Sea, then he is going to be disappointed," said Mulloy.

Map of Donald Trump's 2017 Asia trip

Predominant power play

Nevertheless, Shimada believes it is important that Abe encourages Trump to make an explicit comment on the Japan-US relationship and how it relates to China's growing belligerence in the Asia-Pacific region.

"As we can see from Xi Jinping's address to the recent Communist Party congress, he is determined to secure China's place as the predominant power in the region," he said. "I believe it is of critical importance that Japan and the US maintain their positions as the guardians of freedom here."

Read more: America first, Japan second

More broadly, analysts agree that while there are bilateral trade and economic issues that will need to be addressed in the near future, Trump's visit is not the time or place to do that because both Tokyo and Washington do not want to be seen to be disagreeing on any issues. Differences of opinion in one area might very easily be construed as broader disagreement and could dent the image of close alignment.

A final area of concern for Tokyo will be Trump's domestic political problems, most of which revolve around the ongoing investigation into senior members of Trump's inner circle before his election and allegations that they were colluding with outside powers to rig the vote.

The arrest of a number of Trump's advisers and supporters may also overshadow what is his most important foreign visit to date and a trip that is likely to define his administration's attitudes towards the Asia-Pacific region for the coming years.

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea