Donald Trump’s shambolic and divisive visit to Japan last weekend was yet another highlight in the growing picture of America’s decline as a nation of power and influence in Asia.
For Washington’s competitors and potential enemies, especially China, Trump’s four days in Japan were a huge encouragement.
For the United States’ allies, the visit was an even more intense wake-up call than past demonstrations that Trump is an ignorant and untrustworthy partner.
More than that, the context of the visit shows that the idea is now firmly rooted in Asia that Trump is only a symptom of America’s relative decline. Even when the Trump nightmare has passed, the growing internal social and conflicts fostering isolationism in the US will continue.
On the road in Japan, Trump gave an Oscar-worthy performance of a self-obsessed, but fundamentally insecure fantasist whose only concern is to be seen as a winner.
Abe ahead of the game
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was well ahead of other world leaders in understanding that flattery could get him everywhere with Trump. In the hours after Trump’s election in 2016, Abe rushed to Trump Tower in New York to be the first to congratulate the incoming president.
Abe continued the fawning in this latest visit to Japan by Trump. The US leader was the first foreign head of state to meet the new Japanese emperor as “guest of honor.” And Abe pandered to Trump’s passion for having his name on things by facilitating the creation of a new sumo wrestling prize called “The President’s Cup.”
But there has always been a hint of contempt behind Abe’s courting of Trump. One can almost hear Japanese officials telling Abe: “We know he’s a fool, but we need his support both in trade and national security. So it is necessary to be nice to him, however distasteful that may be.”
Perhaps that is why Trump went out of his way to be thoroughly rude to his host during the Japanese visit, although one cannot ignore the view that Trump always acts as a boor without any social graces.
Missiles ‘standard stuff’
The American president dismissed Abe’s concerns when North Korea conducted short-range missile tests during the visit. Trump said the tests were “standard stuff” that did nothing to undermine his “friendship” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, or erode his confidence that Pyongyang will give up its nuclear weapons.
But many credible analysts say the enhanced capabilities of these weapons can penetrate even top-of-the-line missile defense systems and are a real threat to Japan and South Korea.
In siding with Kim on this, Trump not only dismissed his supposed ally Abe, but also his national security advisor John Bolton, who publicly railed against the North Korean tests.
But the young North Korean leader seems to have a better fix on how to manipulate Trump than do either Abe or Bolton.
Ahead of Trump’s Japan visit, North Korea’s state-controlled media attacked former Democrat Vice-President Joe Biden as a “fool of low IQ.”
Biden is a leading contender to be the Democrats’ candidate for the presidency against Trump in 2020. So in one of his Twitter storms while in Japan, Trump embraced this apparent endorsement by the Kim regime.
In a tweet last Sunday, Trump said he had “smiled when he (Kim) called Swampman Joe Biden a low IQ individual, & worse.”
Winning at all costs
Kim clearly understands that ultimately Trump is only concerned about being seen as a winner at home in the US. All the pomp and ceremony laid on by Abe over the emperor and the sumo trophy are fine and dandy, but what really counts with Trump is being hailed as a winner in New York.
Abe has done all he can to butter up Trump, but the Japanese leader has understood, since well before the arrival of the Trump regime, that the age of American dominance in Asia is drawing to a close.
China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2010, and is set to take the top spot from the US within a few years. More than that, Beijing has invested in a modernized military that appears to be capable of projecting power across the Pacific and Indian ocean regions to defend China’s economic and political interests.
In a hugely significant gesture, Abe’s finale for the Trump tour was a visit to a major Japanese naval base at Yokosuka. Here Trump was shown the Japanese warship Kaga, which has hitherto been called a “destroyer.” It is equipped only with helicopters to respond to humanitarian crises, such as the 2005 tsunami in Southeast Asia, and other non-military activities.
However, the “destroyer” Kaga is, in reality, an aircraft carrier, one of two possessed by the Japanese navy and the largest warships in what is a potent maritime force.
The Kaga is making a dramatic change of character and is being fitted out as a true aircraft carrier. It will be equipped with American-made F35-B stealth fighters, part of an order of 105 of the state-of-the-art US warplanes Japan is buying.
Responding to China
It is not only Japan that feels compelled to respond to China’s growing naval might in an age when Washington’s intervention at times of crisis is increasingly doubtful.
Tokyo’s military and political co-operation with Australia and, particularly, India have grown in response to Beijing’s imperial expansion.
New Delhi has modernized and expanded its own naval forces as Beijing has moved into India’s neighborhood. China has established civilian port facilities in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, but made a major military statement in 2017 when it acquired a naval outpost in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
This “string of pearls” is an important element in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. This massive project aims to invest trillions of dollars modernizing the transportation and associated infrastructures between China, its sources of raw materials and its markets for manufactured goods in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
At the political level, relations between Beijing and New Delhi are better now than they have been for decades. On Wednesday, freshly re-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced he will try to extend this rapprochement by holding a second informal summit with Chinese President Xi later this year.
However, military trust has not yet caught up with the diplomatic advances, and probably never will. Generals are paid to prepare against security disasters.
Earlier this year India announced it has set up a fourth airbase on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which facilitate monitoring Chinese naval activity in the approaches to the choke point Straits of Malacca between Singapore and Indonesia.
India also plans to set up military facilities in Mauritius and the Seychelles. These are to enhance its own naval operations in the Indian Ocean and to prevent Beijing from using those island nations as bases for its own ambitions.
Thus the balance and construction of political, economic and military power in the Indo-Pacific is changing almost by the day. But when future historians come to tell this story, they may well point at Trump’s May visit to Japan as a milestone along that road where the geography visibly changed.