Eri Hotta: President Trump's current Asia trip a reminder that the Cold War continues in East Asia
Despite campaign criticism of Japan, Trump appears to recognize country is crucial ally in the region, Hotta says
Editor’s Note: Eri Hotta is author of “Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy“; the Japanese edition, “1941– Ketsuinaki Kaisen,” won the Asia Pacific Award Special Prize. She holds a visiting professorship at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo. The views expressed are her own.
For all the debate over whether cooling US-Russia ties constitute a new Cold War, President Trump’s current five-nation, 13-day marathon of a trip should already have made something clear: In one part of the world, at least, the Cold War never really ended.
In a way, the feeling that we are stuck in time is appropriate. After all, long before his stop in Tokyo this weekend to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump had revived old arguments about Japan’s supposedly unfair trade practices.
Indeed, looking back, from a Japanese perspective, one of the most bewildering aspects of Trump’s presidential campaign was his revival of Japan-bashing, his rhetoric a throwback to Japan’s short-lived tenure as an economic superpower in the 1980s (when, coincidentally, he came of age as a self-stylized celebrity tycoon versed in the art of “deal-making”).
During the campaign, Trump accused Japan of benefiting unfairly from the US-Japan security alliance, and declared that the arrangement was “not a fair deal.” In portraying Japan as a continuing menace to the US national interest, candidate Trump sounded quaintly anachronistic. Watching him in 2016, many Japanese couldn’t help feeling that Trump was stuck in time. What, after all, is there to be feared from Japan when the country has been stagnating for the past few decades?
And yet, the President’s trip makes it quite clear that despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, nuclear disarmament, and the disintegration of the Soviet empire, the Cold War never really ended in East Asia. Instead, while the actors may have changed, Cold War concepts of nuclear deterrence and power-balancing are still the central principles by which the US President and East Asian leaders are conducting their diplomacy today.
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This is actually not so surprising considering East Asia harbors two of the world’s last remaining communist regimes: China and North Korea. That the West has not truly “won” here is perhaps a fact too easily overlooked because China is inextricably intertwined with Western economic interests. It is only when a serious security threat overshadows the region’s economic agenda that we realize the precariousness of the situation. The words and actions of Kim Jong Un remind all of us in the West, and in East Asia’s liberal democracies, of this simple fact.
Indeed, aside from some more griping about Japanese trade practices on Monday, it is clear that the North Korean threat is Trump’s real worry now, and likely enough to help him overlook his frustration on other issues. This will no doubt be helped by a growing appreciation on Trump’s part for the alliance with Japan. Abe, with the adept help of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has made sure that the new US President, like the ones before him, understands the importance of the US-Japan alliance in East Asia as the fortress of regional security. Meanwhile, Abe – the first foreign leader to meet Trump after his election – has been sending a loyal, flattering and consistent message to Trump, one encapsulated by the baseball cap presented to the President before the two leaders met for a game of golf in Saitama this weekend. The embroidery on the cap read: “Donald & Shinzo: Make Alliance Even Greater.”
Perhaps it is only natural for even a seasoned Japan-basher like President Trump to succumb to such diplomatic flattery and become a Japan-lover instead. The forcible opening of Japan by Commodore Perry in the second half of the 19th century, Japan’s attack on the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, and Japan’s World War II defeat followed by the Allied occupation, saw ties off to a tumultuous start. But in the postwar period, US-Japan relations have, on the whole, been mutually supportive. And now that Trump appears to have acknowledged what binds the two countries together in this East Asian Cold War, Trump’s old suspicions from the 1980s seem likely to evaporate.
So, for Japan, expect business as usual – the perpetuation of the Cold War status quo allows the country’s postwar order, including decades of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party, to continue. The only difference could be a more hawkish foreign policy from Japan under Abe, whose brand of ultranationalism promotes conservative aspects of the imperial institution that the emperor himself may not even wish to revive.
Ultimately, the ever-tighter, or “even-greater” US-Japan alliance is a testament to the reality that the Cold War is far from over. As Trump moves on to the next leg of his Asia trip in South Korea, the East Asia Cold War drama will continue, for now at least, with a changing, yet ever more bizarre cast of characters.