Has Trump driven Japan closer to China?

Late last month, Japanese Prime Minister Abe visited Beijing. His visit nailed down multibillion-dollar trade deals and promises further to strengthen relations between the two Asian giants.

“From competition to coexistence, Japanese and Chinese bilateral relations have entered a new phase,” Abe declared. “With President Xi Jinping, I would like to carve out a new era for China and Japan.”

This was a marked contrast to Abe’s 2014 trip to China. On that occasion, recalls the Washington Post, “neither Abe nor Xi could muster the faintest hint of a smile, and they could hardly wait to finish their handshake for the photographers.”

What’s changed. Several things, one of which is U.S. trade policy.

One rationale for the TPP trade deal was that it would draw the U.S. closer to its Asians allies and freeze China out. When Trump scuttled the deal (as Hillary Clinton said she would do too), his supporters talked about accomplishing the TPP’s geo-political objective through bilateral trade deals. It hasn’t happened.

Was the TPP so unfavorable to the U.S. as to override geo-political considerations pertaining to China? Possibly. But its supporters weren’t wrong to warn of the adverse consequences of pulling out.

Withdrawal from the TPP was only the beginning of Japan’s worries about the Trump administration. The White House reportedly has been weighing tariffs of up to 25 percent on autos and car parts, and Trump has said that he plans to tell Japanese leaders “how much they have to pay” in order not to strain relations with the U.S.

Are Japan’s trade practices so unfair to America as to justify high tariffs on Japanese goods regardless of geo-political consideration pertaining to China. Again, possibly. But if the U.S. expects Japan to support our efforts to curtail China’s much more unfair practices — e.g., theft of intellectual property in an effort to become pre-eminent in high tech — it clearly can’t afford to drive Japan into China’s arms.

It’s a question of priorities, I think. We have grievances, I assume, against virtually all of our trading partners. But our grievances against China are of a different order of magnitude. Moreover, China is a threat to the U.S. in ways that Japan and our Western European allies are not.

Thus, taking the Chinese threat seriously may entail allowing our allies to nickel-and-dime us here and there in order to maintain the relationships we need to take on China.

This, I think, is the lesson of Abe’s visit to China. That lesson was driven home by Abe’s agreement to promote a Chinese-led regional trade deal called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. There’s even talk that China might try to join TPP. Such cooperation can’t be in America’s interest.

Every opportunity we turn down to cooperate with strong Asian nations like Japan is an opportunity for China. And China is more than skillful enough to exploit such opportunities. The Trump administration should think about creating fewer of them.

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