President Donald Trump is visiting East Asia early November. On his visit to Japan, North Korea and trade will be key agendas of the bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Though pundits cast doubts on Trump’s credentials and aptitude for the presidential job, Japanese leaders must hold their nose, as they are in a position to forebear some unpleasant words and deeds by him. Unlike Europe, there is no multilateral security framework in East Asia, thus, a staunch US-Japanese alliance is imperative for Japan’s national survival, whoever the US President is. However, we have to be careful of the Trump risk as we host him. Trump is notorious for erratic behavior, and often deviates from ministerial and working level agreements with Ameica’s strategic partners. The Saudi-Qatari conflict is the typical case. The media and experts are exploring foreign policy making processes of this administration, but it is Trump who makes American foreign policy so unpredictable, and such a risk is visiting Japan, South Korea, and China.
Despite the risk, there are symbolic merits to host the US president. Particularly, Abe’s Japan craves for demonstrating close ties with Trump’s America to meet challenges by China and North Korea. But we have to remember that Trump goes off on his own frequently, and foreign policy discrepancies within the administration has stalled American diplomacy. Regarding Russia, the chasm between Trump and his staff still remains large. Trump startled the world to say that he had revealed highly sensitive information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which upset American foreign policy officials (“Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian foreign minister and ambassador”; Washington Post; May 15, 2017). Associated with Russian election interference, such discrepancies between Trump and cabinet members lower the credibility of American foreign policy (“On Russia, Trump and his top national security aides seem to be at odds”; Washington Post; April18, 2017).
Meanwhile, a fatal discrepancy happened between President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over North Korea, which is, of course, the top agenda on the forthcoming presidential visit to East Asia. Trump ridiculed Tillerson’s diplomatic effort with North Korea through secret channels. It is an act of defection. That has drawn harsh criticism from bipartisan foreign policy experts. Richard Haass, Former Director of Policy Planning under the Bush administration, denounces Trump’s remark that infringes on diplomatic integrity, and even recommends Tillerson to resign. Samantha Power, Former Ambassador to the United Nations under the Obama administration, comments more harshly that Trump’s words and deed are so intolerable as to discredit American diplomacy (“Trump undercuts Tillerson's efforts on North Korea”; Politico; October 1, 2017). Even if Tillerson resigns, foreign policy directions of the Trump administration are disintegrated. While foreign governments listen to Secretary of Defense James Mattis for his venerable career, there are hawkish UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, business-oriented Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, family member Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, etc in the team. In addition, Trump is weakening the Department of State through restructuring and spending cut (“Should Tillerson Resign?”; Politico; October 1, 2017). Those aspects make it more likely for Trump to go off on his own.
The fundamental problem of the Trump presidency is that he does not understand the difference between personal loyalty and national loyalty. According to Professor Eliot Cohen at the Paul Nitze School of the Johns Hopkins University, George W. Bush embraced patriotic criticism from his staff, but in the Trump team, Mattis and Tillerson have been frustrated with the White House whose staffs prioritize personal loyalty to the President (“How Trump Is Ending the American Era”; Atlantic; October, 2017). As long as close aides are so obedient, checks to Trump’s words and deeds within the administration are hardly effective. Therefore, the risk of Trump’s go it alone as seen in the Saudi-Qatari crisis grows larger and larger. The Japanese government must be well-aware of such danger, and watch what happens carefully after Trump leaves Japan to visit South Korea and China. Also, the Abe administration needs to review Trump’s past gaffes and failures on his diplomatic tour, in order to figure out how to manage unexpected crisis if it happens.
Nevertheless, Japanese people are so patient and tolerant as to embrace a foreign leader, however terrible his or her reputation is. That is starkly in contrast with European mindsets that would not accept Trump’s defiance to Western enlightenment. British Prime Minister Theresa May had to postpone the plan to invite Trump, due to rising public antipathy to him. In France, Trump’s attendance to the Bastille Day ceremony is one of the reasons for a sharp decline in President Emmanuel Macron’s approval rate. Abe is blessed with a small luck, as he does not have to care domestic public opinion like this. But it seems that Abe is appeasing to Trump excessively. His cabinet is setting the Emperor to meet Trump ("Trump to meet emperor on his visit to Japan"; Nikkei Asian Review; October 24, 2017), but that is a pressure on European royal families to embrace the notorious American president. Also, it is not appropriate to invite Ivanka Trump to the World Assembly for Women in Tokyo ("Ivanka Trump to speak at Tokyo women’s empowerment symposium"; Japan Times; October 25, 2017), as she is too symbolic of nepotism an kleptocracy that is bitterly criticized in America. Like it or not, the bilateral summit in Tokyo is an opportunity to show the US-Japanese solidarity, but the Japanese government must be well-aware of the Trump risk, and it is necessary to make the danger as less as possible. Ministerial and working level coordination behind the curtain are more important than ever, for both sides. Japan needs to be cautious of Trump, and I do not hope another Saudi-Qatari clash happens in the Far East.