News analysis

US' ties with Asian giants closer to status quo now

Culminating a two-day diplomatic blitz, President Donald Trump has assuaged Japanese concerns by reaffirming the US' commitment to its alliance with Tokyo.

Mr Trump and visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heaped praise on each other at a joint press conference in Washington on Friday, prior to flying to Florida for more informal talks and some weekend golf. This came a day after Mr Trump, in a phone call with China's President Xi Jinping, reaffirmed that the US would not change its "one China" policy. Both leaders also invited each other to visit. Mr Trump told reporters the conversation had been "very, very warm" and that both sides "are in the process of getting along very well".

Soon after being elected, Mr Trump, who had during the campaign slammed China's allegedly unfair trade practices, indicated the "one China" policy, in which the US recognises Taiwan as part of China, may be reviewed. He also complained about allies - like Japan - not doing enough in return for the US' security umbrella.

Both tacks caused ripples of concern in Beijing and Tokyo. But analysts now see Mr Trump as moving closer to the status quo in the US' relations with the two Asian powers. "In East Asia, we are going to see a continuum," Ms Shihoko Goto, a senior associate for North-east Asia at the Wilson Centre in Washington, told The Sunday Times. "President Trump is avoiding the 'one China' minefield. And the fact he is investing so much time and effort in reaching out to Prime Minister Abe is reassuring."

Mr Abe and Mr Trump avoided contentious issues. At their press conference, the Prime Minister refused to comment on any of Mr Trump's recent moves, for instance, cracking down on immigration that has been stalled by the courts and facing protests, or ditching the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. "It's about having differences but focusing on commonalities," Ms Goto said.

Mr Trump greeting Mr Abe warmly at the White House on Friday. At the joint conference with Mr Abe, Mr Trump said the right things so as to put everyone at ease, said an observer. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Dr Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific Security Programme director at the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, said: "The last 24 hours of diplomacy have been impressive. The President put to bed concern over the 'one China' policy. He wants jobs, he wants economic growth, he wants infrastructure, but he doesn't want conflict with China."

And with regard to Japan, it shows that the two leaders "are fully committed to emerging with an extremely strong alliance, including one that has more economic and trade content".

"There are some potentially new and serious investments on the table," Dr Cronin said.

Mr Abe underlined the strength of Japan's investment and manufacturing in the US, pointing out Japanese firms invested US$150 billion (S$213 billion) last year. He also brought proposals for Japanese investment in infrastructure, technology and energy.

Mr Abe pointedly said at the joint press conference that a Japanese shinkansen train would cut the trip from Washington to Trump Tower, the President's home in New York, to one hour. It currently takes around three hours.

The most closely watched, though, was Mr Trump's commitment to the US-Japan alliance and, in this regard, he thanked Mr Abe and "the Japanese people" for "allowing" US forces to be stationed in Japan.

The phone call with Mr Xi and the meeting with Mr Abe were in stark contrast to Mr Trump's testy phone calls with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Mexican President Enrique Piena Nieto.

At the joint conference with Mr Abe, Mr Trump "said the right things and was more aware of his language; he obviously wanted to put everyone at ease", said Ms Goto. "Trump trumped his doubters," the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said in a commentary, adding that Mr Abe "wanted to show the world that Japan and the US are as close as ever now that Donald Trump is President, and he pulled it off".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, with the headline 'US' ties with Asian giants closer to status quo now'. Print Edition | Subscribe