Ever since the Trump administration came to power, it has tried to concentrate on what the president terms as his “America First” strategy. One of the first steps he took was signing an executive order for the United States to pull itself out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It is worth mentioning that during the shrill election campaign last year, he had called on U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea to pay more for the security guarantee that the United States currently proffers them. He had also accused China of unfair trade practices and of militarizing the South China Sea.
However, it is Asia – especially northeast Asia – which seems to have received quite a significant bit of attention from the new administration. In a sign of the importance accorded to northeast Asia, Defense Secretary James Mattis has already visited Japan and South Korea in early February while in March Secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarked on his maiden Asia visit, which took him to Japan, South Korea, and China.
Trump is now set to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in early April. Trump had made a phone call to President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan after his election victory (but before being sworn-in as president), which had rankled Beijing. However, he knows well that China is part of the solution when it comes to dealing with North Korea (and on many other issues) and this is what may have prompted him to have a summit meeting with Xi Jinping early on in his term, despite all the bluster during the election campaign and immediately afterwards.
During his visit to South Korea, Secretary Tillerson warned that the “military option is on the table” with regards to North Korea and that the U.S. policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea would end. However, the impeachment of South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-Hye has complicated matters with the US now having to deal with a South Korean President after the elections on May 9. However, that has not prevented the United States from going ahead and deploying the first elements of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence(THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea, in the face of strong opposition from North Korea and China.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was quick off the blocks in warming up to the new president and has already paid a visit to the United States to meet President Trump. Tokyo is also getting increasingly proactive in the Asia-Pacific region, as exemplified by its decision to deploy its largest warship, the helicopter carrier Izumo for on a three-month tour beginning this May. The Izumo will call at Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka before heading to the Indian Ocean where it will take part in the annual Malabar naval exercises along with India and the United States later in July this year.
So what could have prompted the Abe government to take this decision?
First, it comes against the backdrop of the latest round of missile tests carried out by North Korea. While there is nothing new about such missile tests, what is worrying Tokyo is that three of these North Korean missiles landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Second, the Trump administration has been pressuring Japan and other U.S. allies to do more when it comes to the security front and the Izumo deployment is something which the Abe administration could flaunt to President Trump as proof of the fact that Japan is willing to take on more security responsibilities.
Third, the Abe administration has strong support domestically, notwithstanding the recent controversy over the sale of land to a nationalist school at throwaway prices because of its alleged links to the ruling establishment. Hence, it can afford to go ahead with such security moves even though it may draw some public resentment.
Fourth, Tokyo has recently decided to withdraw Japanese peacekeepers from South Sudan by the end of this May and in that context the decision to deploy the Izumo comes not a day too soon, with regards to its international responsibilities.
Japan has also recently commissioned its second Izumo-class helicopter carrier, the J S Kaga, which will greatly boost the naval capabilities of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF). Tokyo’s economic prosperity depends on the free flow of trade through the South China Sea, through which an estimated $5 trillion of trade is estimated to pass every year.
Former President Obama had close personal contacts with Asia having lived for a few years in Indonesia and with an Indonesian stepfather. During his term in office, he had launched that so-called “pivot” to Asia, which saw the United States reassert its historical presence in Asia in both military and economic terms. Trump’s recent meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel showed that he is not exactly at home while dealing with some of the European leaders. In contrast, he seems to have struck a close rapport with Asian leaders like Abe. Hence, for both economic and political reasons, President Trump, may, whether he intends to or not, end up bolstering U.S. presence in northeast Asia.
Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The views expressed are his own. His recent book is The Elephant and the Samurai: Why Japan Can Trust India