President Donald Trump has just ended a surprisingly successful five-country first visit to Asia. His marathon 12-day tour began on a positive note with a warm reception by Japan’s government and people. There was much curiosity, but no demonstrations against, surrounding his visit—unlike those which occurred in the ROK and the Philippines. Regardless, there was plenty of American (and Japanese) beef on the menu.
Local press coverage applauded the bilateral successes along the way. After more than a year of relentlessly negative media coverage from mainstream US and international news outlets imported through the Japanese press, as well as pundits foretelling the imminent demise of his administration, the Japanese public was rather pleasantly surprised to find Mr. Trump a warm-hearted individual, with a foreign policy that is far better defined and closer to the conservative mainstream than anyone expected.
An FNN-Sankei opinion poll taken on November 11 and 12, a full week after Mr. Trump’s official visit, found 67.6% of the Japanese public considered his visit to Japan a success. The public also thought he possessed the upper hand, as revealed by the second survey question, which found only 61.1% considered Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meetings with Mr. Trump to be a success. Could this represent a gap between the people’s wisdom and experts’ prejudice?
Mr. Trump embarked on his visit to Japan exactly one tumultuous year after he was elected. For certain media outlets and pundits, his presidency was both unexpected and unwelcome. Unprecedented ridicule in the mainstream media, questions about his competency, and predictions of his early resignation or impeachment have been broadcast regularly ever since.
Yet, Mr. Trump has not stepped down from the presidency. Rather, his vitality and brusque charm seemingly dominated on this Asian tour. His remarks were substantive and articulate.
At the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam, Mr. Trump clarified his vision of US foreign policy in Asia. Its security and humanitarian features were also encapsulated in his speech before the South Korean National Assembly and earlier comments in Japan, including his meeting with Japanese families of North Korean abduction victims.
The main goal of his foreign policy strategy in Asia, emphasized at every stop, was articulated as a bid to ensure a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” This expands upon previous US administrations’ application of Asia-Pacific policy to cover all of the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, encouraging the collaboration of the democratic sovereign states in said region to build an order based on democratic values and free, open transit.
It is a strategy first proposed by Prime Minister Abe to promote the expansion of democracy, rule of law, and economic development from the Pacific Ocean to the Persian Gulf. In concrete terms, it also promotes the coalition of regional alliances of willing democratic nations led by the US, Japan, India, and Australia. One effect is to confront and contain China’s lawless expansionism by applying universal values—for example, adherence to international norms and respect for human rights. Another effect is to pressure rogue nations, like North Korea, on their international adventurism, nuclear ambitions, and human rights violations—including their abduction of Japanese and other citizens.
It is unprecedented for a US president to incorporate and expand upon an international concept developed by a Japanese prime minister. In this case, however, Mr. Trump has unabashedly adopted terminology coined by Mr. Abe, whom the former considers both as his ally and partner.
Mr. Trump expounded upon this policy in multiple statements during his trip. In Japan and South Korea, he spoke eloquently on human rights and the threat North Korea poses to the civilized world through its dangerous aggression and nuclear ambitions, reassuring his regional hosts that resolving these issues remains a key component of US policy.
In Danang, he called for upholding “democracy, the rule of law, individual rights and freedom, and freedom of navigation” as the vital principles of an “Indo-Pacific dream,” striking out against dictators who trample on such principles. In the economic sphere, he cited “unfair trade practices, predatory state industrial policies, and unjust subsidies to state-owned or state-run enterprises” as unacceptable. These were obviously warnings to China.
As he moved throughout the region, his policy statements were punctuated by three aircraft carriers of the US Navy deployed in the Western Pacific.
And yes, there have been results. His visit was peaceful. There were many deals to sell US products, of course, but beyond that the alliances were revitalized. The US bilateral relationship with Japan is stronger than ever and Japan is now striving to become a better alliance partner because of it.
Addressing the North Korean abduction of Japanese and horrific treatment of foreigners such as the young American, Otto Warmbier, Mr. Trump reassured Japan and South Korea that human rights undoubtedly remain a strong element of the US policy, alongside containment of the North Korean military threat. In apparent response to his pressure, China, long recognized as the only nation possessing leverage over the rogue state, dispatched an official envoy to Pyongyang.
Offers to help resolve conflicts arising from Chinese expansion in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean were equally reassuring to the US allies. Perhaps these are small measures, but they represent forward momentum in the implementation of his Indo-Pacific policy.
Before Mr. Trump’s Asian tour, many pundits suggested he was an eccentric leader, uninterested in other parts of the world. Now we have met him on our own turf and he has made friends in Japan. We know that, while Mr. Trump as president may be unconventional, he is definitely engaged. His new Indo-Pacific policy reassuringly contains familiar policy elements of past conservative Republican administrations, beginning with universal democratic values, such as human rights and rule of law, maintaining strong regional alliances, confronting rogue and/or dictatorial regimes, and deterrence through military power.
Japan, as both a friend and ally, is regarded as pivotal in this new policy. We have been called upon to play an important role for the security of our citizens and country, and the region, for which we are not yet fully prepared, however. It is time to show we have the will to do so. Are we ready?
Yoshihisa Komori is Sankei Shimbun’s Associate Correspondent in Washington, DC and a professor at Reitaku University. He is also a Special Advisor to JAPAN Forward. Mr. Komori began his career as a reporter with the Mainichi Shimbun and served as its Saigon bureau chief and Washington correpondent. Subsequently, he joined Sankei Shimbun, for which he served as bureau chief in London, Washington, and Beijing. He is a recipient of the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association Award, the Japan National Press Club Award for International Reporting, and the U.P.I. Vaughn Prize for International Reporting.
Mr. Komori is also the author of more than forty books. His past academic experience includes an affiliation with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as a Senior Associate and Akita International University as a visiting professor.