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Relief after Trump and Abe hit it off

It was a weekend that included an intimate golf outing of more than four hours; a lavish Saturday night dinner; and an unexpected joint statement on North Korea’s missile launch.

Yet even more notable was what the two-day summit between Donald Trump and Japan’s Shinzo Abe did not include — controversy.

Three weeks into his presidency, Mr Trump appears to be adopting a more traditional US foreign policy stance — a position at odds with some of the more controversial statements that he professed about Asia, and particularly China, during the election campaign.

So far, the White House has released few details about the discussions between the president and Mr Abe during the Japanese prime minister’s visit to the US, which included a stop in Washington and a trip to Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, now nicknamed the Winter White House. 

Yet veteran Asia watchers express cautious optimism that Mr Trump’s new relationship with Mr Abe, as well as his recent statements on China and Korea, indicated that the administration’s stance would not depart too far from those of Mr Trump’s predecessors — a relief, given some of his incendiary comments during the campaign.

Mike Green, former senior director for Asia on George W Bush’s National Security Council, says Mr Trump’s summit with Mr Abe, his moderation on China and his relatively subdued joint statement with the Japanese leader on North Korea were “the first jab by the White House at a realistic foreign policy”. 

Meeting with the Japanese early on; making the right moves on China; the instinct to respond quickly and publicly to a North Korea launch . . . all of that is good stuff

“Until now we’ve heard very reasonable things from [secretary of defence James] Mattis and [secretary of state Rex] Tillerson,” Mr Green says. “Now the president himself is saying the kind of things you would expect given the situation in Asia. Whether this lasts is something we’ll have to wait and see.”

“Broadly speaking this is a good week for Asia policy,” says Evan Medeiros, who was the top Asia adviser to Barack Obama. “Meeting with the Japanese early on; making the right moves on China; the instinct to respond quickly and publicly to a North Korea launch . . . all of that is good stuff.”

During the presidential race, Mr Trump sparked alarm in Japan and South Korea by floating the possibility of withdrawing US troops from the two US allies, a move that would weaken their defences against the mounting threat from an increasingly belligerent North Korea. Mr Trump also suggested that they should consider developing nuclear weapons to combat Pyongyang to reduce the defence burden placed on the US.

Mr Obama in November warned Mr Trump that his most immediate challenge as president would be dealing with North Korea — a statement cheered in Japan and South Korea — and in recent days Mr Trump has moderated his tone.

Speaking alongside Mr Abe at the White House on Friday, Mr Trump assuaged many of the Japanese concerns by stressing the importance of the US-Japan alliance, and saying that tackling North Korea was a top priority.

“We face numerous challenges, and bilateral co-operation is essential,” Mr Trump said. “We will work together to promote our shared interests, of which we have many in the region, including . . . defending against the North Korean missile and nuclear threat, both of which I consider a very, very high priority.”

The FT reported this month that the White House National Security Council had launched a comprehensive review of North Korea policy to consider ways to deal with the threat from Pyongyang. While Mr Trump floated during the election campaign the idea of meeting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, some experts believe the US will eventually have no option but to consider a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities.

Most Asia experts in Washington agree that the US will need more help from China to have any chance of engineering a diplomatic solution. As the country with the strongest economic and financial ties with North Korea, China has the ability to squeeze the regime, but it is concerned about sparking an implosion in North Korea that would send huge numbers of refugees into China. 

However, the potential for Sino-US co-operation received a boost on Thursday when Mr Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the White House would honour the “One China” policy under which Washington views Beijing — and not Taipei — as the sole seat of government in China. 

Some observers noted that Mr Trump’s statement on North Korea on Saturday was not without mis-steps. In his brief comments, the US president declared: “I just want everybody to understand and full know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally 100 per cent.” But he failed to condemn the missile launch and to reaffirm that the US would continue to back South Korea, one of its closest allies in the region. 

Still, experts note that overall Mr Trump appeared to be adhering to a more traditional foreign policy approach to Asia. 

“Some of the more radical approaches that were discussed during the campaign have not been realised,” Mr Medeiros says.

“There are big challenges ahead and what tools they use — military versus diplomatic versus economic — will really define their approach,” he adds.

Via FT