Since coming to power, US President Donald Trump has made a number of policy decisions which have a significant impact upon the Asian sphere. One of his first moves upon entering the White House was to withdraw the US from the TPP, a trading group which Barack Obama had spent years cultivating, reflecting a deeper trend of protectionism, isolation and suspicion of multilateral diplomacy. Critics have good reason to fear the results. The TPP was designed as a counterweight to Chinese power in Asia and even though it will probably continue in a truncated form, without the presence of the US it is certainly a less powerful association. Notwithstanding, with their powerful group of potential member nations it could be very powerful indeed. The Chinese Japanese and others amongst the proposed constituent nations must seriously reflect if the US should be allowed to…!

Trump administration’s December 2017 National Security Statement singled out China as a fundamental threat to US economic and strategic viability, but this does not seem to have affected Trump’s position on the TPP, though with typical capriciousness, his views on whether to rejoin change from one week to the next. He has for the moment apparently sated himself with a tariff war as he has accused Beijing of ‘absolutely killing us with trade’. The US’ withdrawal from the sphere has an assertive Japan, a powerhouse China (and a still Putin led Russia) poised to capitalize on the void: alliances are now shifting and relationships changing. In the midst of all of this, China is rolling out its mammoth infrastructure program, the BRI, a trillion dollar scheme to spread influence, largely through soft power and connectivity power, across central Asia, as far as Europe. Added to this we have the recent developments such as the prospect of a historic summit between North and South Korea, which is supposed to act as a prelude to eventual talks between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un - the first ever meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting US president.

It has been interesting to note the reaction of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the arrival of Trump, and how this may have affected Japan’s position on China and the BRI. First, a note on the author of ‘Abenomics’. His ambition is clear; he has led the government for more than five years and additionally he will be allowed to contest the Liberal Democratic Party leadership for a third term in September. An assertive leader, one of the main elements of his agenda is amending the peace constitution with the hope of removing Article 9 of the constitution which revoked Japan’s right to belligerency, a project which has caused upset among other nations in the Asian sphere for obvious reasons. Whilst Japan has historically expressed skepticism about the BRI project, and bilateral relations are traditionally strained, there has been evidence of a reset in Japan-China relations, visible not least through Tokyo’s attitude towards the BRI. In May of last year Abe dispatched a special envoy to the BRI forum in Beijing, a significant move given that since no state visits have taken place since 2011. At the summit there Toshihiro Nikai, Secretary-General of Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party, met Chinese President Xi Jinping and handed him a personal letter from Abe. On 11 November 2017, Abe met Xi on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Vietnam and proposed mutual state visits in 2018. Though Xi did not directly accept Abe’s proposition, he did assert that the stable development of Japan–China relations would be advantageous to both countries. In September of the same year, Abe attended China’s National Day celebration at the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo, in a show of further sympathy with China. Their reset in relations is not least caused by Trump’s politicking: it is noteworthy that during a visit to Tokyo by China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said both nations “share the perception that causing trade wars will have an extremely large impact on the prosperity of the global economy.” The protectionist measures of the Trump administration have quite clearly been instrumental in changing the dynamics. There are also other economic reasons for a rapprochement: the Chinese economy is slowing and it is keen for Japan to be an active participant in the BRI. Approximately half of all Japanese firms which operate overseas still operate in China.

Furthermore there are local geopolitical reasons: the relationship between Japan and South Korea is tense due to the ongoing comfort women issue, so Japan may have turned towards China for alliance in the region for this reason, especially because it considers it the best way of putting pressure on North Korea. China is perhaps also concerned about the major item on the forthcoming political agenda: the prospect of negotiations between the US and North Korea, brokered by South Korea. It is certainly not the only state to have been shocked by Trump’s decision to agree to a summit with Kim Jong-un, but there are players within the Chinese political elite who believe that the summit has sidelined China, which, in their view, should be playing a critical role. Some even fear that a US–North Korea rapprochement against China could develop and China’s influence would diminish considerably. Many suggest however that such fears are overblown. Nonetheless, closer ties have developed apace between North and South Korea in recent months: with the reopening of the hotline between the two leaders President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un and Kim’s pledge to a moratorium on missile testing. All these developments suggest that the status quo in the Korean peninsula is shifting. Intriguingly, at the end of March, Kim Jong-un made an unannounced visit to Beijing, meeting with President Xi Jinping. This is the first time he has left North Korea since he took power in 2011. The fact of Mr Kim’s visit has substantiated some observers’ claims that Beijing has nothing to be worried about - the visit proving that the North Korean leader does in fact need Chinese support - or consultation - before embarking upon diplomatic openings with Mr Trump.

If these fears are cast aside, perhaps the China-Japan rapprochement will not last long, as there are other factors which could corrode improved relations. Beyond Abe’s plans for removing the belligerence clause, there remain issues around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Japan has a contiguous zone around the islands in which Chinese vessels have been sailing since September 2012, invading their territory. In January of this year, submarines sailed through, causing a major uproar in Japan. The two countries also lock horns over Taiwan - with China upping the pressure on Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to accept the ‘1992 Consensus’, which constitutes a verbal agreement on the subject of the ‘One China principle’. In the meantime Japan seeks to strengthen its ties with Taiwan under the Tsai administration, which the Chinese government has officially protested. Then, there is also the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’. In an interesting twist, given its newly clement position on the BRI, on February 23 of this year, Abe, alongside his cabinet, presented Japan’s new aid strategy, and sanctioned ‘Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) 2017 White Paper’ whose objective is to use Japanese aid to reinforce the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’ first articulated by the Prime Minister in August of 2006. According to this vision, the Indo-Pacific region, extending beyond South East Asia to India, is considered critical to maintaining global peace. The initiative consists of three pillars: enforcing maritime law, producing greater “connectivity” via “high quality” infrastructure and the development of a “rules based” order. In many ways, even to the most uninformed eyes, this resembles the BRI. However, whilst its scope may mimic the BRI, the level of investment is vastly inferior to that promised by China’s program. Japan will spend US$ 110 billion on a number of ‘high-quality’ infrastructure projects in Asia: China’s BRI entails US$4 trillion of investment. Jingping evidently perceives of the Indo-Pacific vision as, if not a feasible rival to the BRI, certainly a conceptual containment strategy. Japan’s intentions are not necessarily to rile China: it could be that Tokyo quite simply wants to assure the importance of Asian sphere connectivity and promote the notion of peace alongside China, as opposed to in rivalry with it. It could be that its new support of the BRI is to assuage China’s fears regarding the belligerence clause.

At the moment, largely thanks to Trump’s precipitous behaviour and capriciousness, it remains extremely hard to predict how any of these scenarios will develop. A considerable amount of attention has been directed towards the prospect of the Trump and Kim Jong Un meeting, not least because it will be unprecedented as a piece of political theatre. However, as analyst David Kang has pointed out, the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is much more important: if it does not go well, it is even possible that the summit between Trump and Mr Kim will not go ahead. 

The first meeting should be perceived of as a testing ground, to quote Kang, to talk through 'a set of possible negotiating points that could come up between Trump and Kim. This would provide both the United States and North Korea some indication of what is possible if the two sides ever meet'. In terms of China and Japan, their current rapprochement may well transmute as and when the next major summit takes place. Evidently in China, Xi Jingping is there to stay - the consolidation of his power, as now a Supreme Leader, is all too evident, to the horror of many rights watchdogs. For Japan’s Shinzo Abe however, there is much greater precariousness. The Moritomo Gakuen scandal, which involved the sale of state owned land to a school operator with ties to the Prime Minister’s wife, has reared its head again and with it calls for Abe’s resignation, along with that of Finance Minister Taro Aso. Hence domestic political scenarios could derail the geopolitical momentum of the period - much in the way Trump’s arrival derailed the TPP. It is with these many factors at work that the situation is evolving – and peace or war seems to be but a Tweet away. 

Sara Bielecki