Recently, Donald Trump took to Twitter to introduce his North Korea policy. His “no way” tweet regarding the North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) didn’t have any meaning. Some took it as Trump expressing doubts about capabilities of North Korea’s rockets; others as a warning that he would order a preemptive strike on the DPRK. Added to this, there was a stringent attack on China, but without any specifics. He returned to Twitter to lambaste Toyota’s plans to invest in Mexico. There is something for Polonius’ quip that brevity is the soul of wit, but even the Bard gave the kings and emperors of his plays more than 140 characters to express their ideas.
Since Donald Trump will soon be sworn as America’s 45th president, Japan should be anxious and fearful. Tokyo has always wanted American support against North Korea, but even a “hawkish” cabinet such as Abe’s will think twice before supporting operations that could lead to a new war in Korea. Japan Inc. would be the first collateral damage of a U.S. trade war with China should Trump follow campaign promises. And, obviously, Tokyo does not relish American Japan-bashing in the auto industry.
Beijing has almost as many reasons to be concerned as Tokyo. An America weakened by a tweeter-in-chief with no attachment to U.S. core alliances and the international liberal order built by previous American administrations is good news for Xi Jinping. But enormous tariffs on Chinese goods, a national security advisor (Michael Flynn) who thinks China supports the Islamic State, and a president who seems regret that nuclear bombs aren’t used is not what the Communist Party of China (CPC) wants. Even if on balance Trump is likely to undermine America’s relative power in the world, there’s a significant risk that in doing so he could seriously hurt the interests of the Party in a negative sum game.
Beijing wants to expel American power from the Western Pacific. It is willing to take risks, including armed conflict with Japan and the United States, to achieve this goal. However, Xi is neither Hitler nor Mussolini. They worshiped war and couldn’t be satisfied by incremental victories and skirmishes. Xi and the leaders of the CPC do not belong to that category. Moreover, they also care about the economy, if only because its success underpins Party legitimacy and funds the military. Thus, an American president who thinks China is killing the American economy and who has an old Hollywood vision of armed conflict as entertainment is a danger for the potentates of Beijing.
The Trump presidency could thus be bad for both Japan and China. One country would turn out to be marginally worse off. But it’s a good bet that neither Xi nor Abe would be too pleased if their country’s economy went down 50 percent, even if their adversary’s collapsed by 75 percent. Moreover, neither Xi nor Abe know which of them would end up the bigger loser. This provides an opportunity for some imaginative diplomacy for Beijing and Tokyo to agree to a sort of cease-fire in their undeclared hostilities.
The leaders of China and Japan should get together soon. They will both survey the most unpredictable and potentially catastrophic environment of their lifetimes (or, for Xi, since the end of the Cultural Revolution). Japan could lose the ally that has backstopped its security since the end of the occupation in 1952. China could discover that Trump, backed not only by many Republicans but also anti-trade Democrats, is willing to engage in hard-core protectionism and/or will be much more trigger-happy than his predecessors. Even if aimed at China, American protectionism would hit Japan hard given the nature of global, and especially Asian, supply chains and cross-border investments.
Both Tokyo and Beijing have an incentive to figure out a way to survive the Trump era. The challenge will be for them to devise some sort of informal agreement. It will be difficult. Trump, even before he assumes the presidency, has already upended the balance of power in the region. Japan looks weaker with an American leader who thinks that a major alliance is just like a short-term real estate deal. But Abe cannot look like some unfortunate soul. He has to stand tall. He should tell Xi, “Typhoons don’t differentiate between Japanese and Chinese. Trump can hurt you as much as he can damage us. It could even be worse for you because neither your society nor your political system is as stable and peaceful as ours. So let’s sit down and proceed to find a way to survive the storm together.”
There is no guarantee that such an approach would work. Beijing’s aggressive maritime moves reveal the CPC’s confrontational attitude. Abe, as seen by his self-destructive recall of the Japanese ambassador to Seoul, is not a great strategic thinker. But neither Xi nor Abe, nor their subordinates, are incompetent. Even if such an approach has only a 10 percent chance of success, it’s worth trying.
Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.