The status quo in the US-Japan-China relationship may not be valid any more
Japan must realise that it may no longer find favourable treatment in Washington, while China has work to do on its US ties
Despite reassurances from new US secretary of defence James Mattis, Tokyo had remained unclear over what Donald Trump’s administration meant for the region and the US-Japan alliance. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent talks in Washington, and a round of golf with the president which underlined their good rapport, should have eased concerns, with Trump reaffirming the US commitment to defend Japan. That, however, reckons without the unpredictability that can make Trump hard to read. His phone call with President Xi Jinping just before he saw Abe, in which he reaffirmed the US commitment to the one-China principle, is a case in point.
It was seen as a balancing move that warned Japan not to take the relationship for granted, following Trump’s repeated criticism of Tokyo for not paying enough towards the costs of hosting US bases in Japan. Trump’s dropping of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement, which Japan was hoping would stimulate its stagnant economy, is a case in point.
Just to make it clear that US relations with China and Japan are under new management, Trump said he and Xi were “in the process of getting along very well”. The phone call put Abe on notice that friendship is a two-way street and he cannot necessarily count on favoured treatment. Indeed, it can no longer be assumed that long-standing diplomatic, strategic and security arrangements will remain as they have been for decades.
Abe has a strong motive to nurture a solid personal relationship with Trump, given the high degree of trust necessary to maintain Japan’s confidence in the US security umbrella. He also would be wise to heed Trump’s observation that good US-China relations “will also be very much of benefit to Japan”.
Xi too has good reasons for trying to understand Trump. Well-connected people in China and the US are trying to set up a meeting between them.
Beijing has some work to do on bilateral ties, having been wrong-footed by Trump’s election win.