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Japan’s China Deals Are Pure Pragmatism
Even Donald Trump can't push Tokyo into Beijing's arms.
Several analysts have recently argued that unpredictable and blunt foreign-policy moves by the United States under President Donald Trump have prompted Japan — America’s most important East Asian ally — to move toward China. An article in the Wall Street Journal was headlined “Trump Trade Fight Brings Japan and China Together,” dubbing them “strange bedfellows.” Others have used the uncertainty caused by Trump as the background to a thaw between the two East Asian rivals.
Yet while there’s some truth to these arguments, Tokyo isn’t about to ditch Washington for Beijing anytime soon. Japan’s policy toward China is becoming more pragmatic in the face of growing Chinese power and a more uncertain U.S. role, but the last thing it wants is to see the United States disappear from East Asia.
The roller coaster of foreign policy under Trump is acutely felt in Japan. During his first week in office, Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the region’s flagship multilateral trade deal that was previously shepherded by Washington and co-piloted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He has subsequently attempted to shake down long-standing allies, including Japan and South Korea, with accusations that they profit from the U.S. security alliance at a minimal cost.
His more recent full-frontal attack on trade issues has affected allies and rivals — such as China — alike. Japan, like Canada and the European Union, has received no favors despite being a loyal long-term ally to the United States. Instead, the Trump administration has slapped large tariffs on Japanese steel and aluminium, citing draconian provisions that framed such moves as necessary for U.S. national security.
Japan is also concerned that the Trump administration is overselling a deal with North Korea that has no reality on the ground and that Washington lacks a comprehensive strategy — despite landing several blunt blows — for dealing with China’s regional assertiveness. While Japan has been a vocal supporter of the maximum pressure campaign aimed at bringing North Korea to the negotiating table, led by the Trump administration, it has also been wary of recent developments that have been viewed as providing concessions to Pyongyang for free.
Shortly after the recent Singapore meeting, Trump offered to suspend bilateral military war games with South Korea — dubbed Ulchi Freedom Guardian — slated for later this year. Trump’s announcement, which was apparently made without consulting either Japan or South Korea, has catalyzed doubts on the U.S. approach to the Korean Peninsula. Tokyo is also deeply worried over Trump’s articulation that the exercises are “provocative” and “expensive.” This type of language re-emphasizes concerns that the White House increasingly views alliances in the region as a financial and security burden, rather than as an essential component of U.S. Asia policy and regional stability.
At the same time, there have also been notable improvements to the Japan-China relationship. Last month, Japan hosted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for a bilateral visit, alongside the trilateral summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. During Li’s visit, Tokyo and Beijing agreed to establish a Belt and Road Council and also finalized a long-discussed air-sea contact mechanism to avert an unintended skirmish in the East China Sea, where they continue to clash over disputed islands. On trade issues, both sides — which remain heavily interdependent — have interests in pushing back on Trump’s protectionist moves and promoting a more stable trade climate in the region. Despite large differences on the ambition of trade agreements, Japan and China continue to negotiate both minilaterally and multilaterally through the China-Japan-Korea free trade agreement and the larger Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Yet these steps of improvement, while welcome, are modest and incremental. In other words, what we are seeing here is pragmatism, not détente. The main structural issues of strategic mistrust in the relationship — namely, the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and natural resources in the East China Sea, China’s regional assertiveness and rapid military modernization, the presence of the U.S.-Japan alliance, and the relationship with Taiwan — remain deep-rooted and largely unaddressed. Second, while there are legitimate concerns in Japan, and among most U.S. allies, on the Trump administration’s increasingly hostile rhetoric about alliances, Tokyo remains fully tethered to Washington as its security guarantor. This point has not changed even with Trump’s rhetorical barbs.
Rather than name and shame Washington for its protectionist language on trade — a step that would further reduce U.S. credibility in Asia and embolden China’s position — Japan has been consciously making an effort to keep the United States engaged in the region through an intensive campaign of diplomacy. This has been most prominent in South and Southeast Asia, where Abe has worked hard to enhance and develop Japan’s strategic relationships with countries such as India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and others. This move is not aimed at balancing against an unreliable Washington but at keeping the United States involved in the region through a web of minilateral groupings — but also through Japan’s own bilateral relationships — which support U.S. goals in the region, such as the freedom of navigation and the resolution of disputes through international law.
Finally, while Japan continues to retrofit its security and defense posture under the Abe administration, these moves are evolutionary and part of a process that has been happening for decades under different Japanese administrations. Key developments under the Abe administration — such as the establishment of a National Security Council, National Security Strategy, and revised bilateral defense guidelines with the United States — are largely intended to complement and enhance the U.S.-Japan alliance, rather than pivot away in fear of a retrenching America.
While the recent steps in the relationship between Japan and China are not a nothing burger, they are also far from a sign toward rapprochement. In the coming months, we are likely to see a more pragmatic relationship between Beijing and Tokyo but no accommodation on their main areas of divergence. The fate of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party may play a crucial role. If Abe is able to continue on for a third term as party head, and thereby prime minister, relations with Beijing will stay on track. A change at the top, however, could add a dose of instability back to the relationship.