Photo from: Japan Times

Since Donald Trump took office as the new president of the United States, he has been giving confusing signals to the international community and allies as to how the US will pursue its longstanding role as champion of the liberal democratic order and number one security provider all over the world.

As promised during the presidential campaign, Trump withdrew the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal in January, and in June withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement. During the presidential campaign, he criticized China for being a “currency manipulator” and angered Beijing in his telephone call to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. Eventually, he reversed his stand and told Chinese President Xi Jinping that he would honor the “One China” policy, at the request of the latter.

Many questions are being asked about how evolving big power dynamics should be managed and how to properly adapt to the new circumstances.

Security concerns continue to plague the region

As the Trump administration grapples for a clear foreign policy agenda, major security issues continue to loom over the southeast and northeast Asian regions. The territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea, while apparently quieting down in the last year, remain with no clear solution in sight. In the SCS, some claimant states have begun cozying up to China and setting aside the disputes in exchange for economic benefits. This allowed China to persist in militarizing the reefs it recently built into islands, without much resistance.

On the Korean peninsula, North Korea remains unstoppable in its missile tests, causing serious concern for neighboring countries, mainly Japan and South Korea. Two such missile tests were conducted in the month of July alone, the latter possibly the longest-range intercontinental ballistic missile ever tested, with potential to reach major U.S. cities.

Between Trump’s confusing foreign policy and these regional security concerns is China’s growing economic and military power, compounding the sense of an uncertain future for the region. Aside from further militarizing the SCS, China has embarked on large-scale economic initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). It continues to infuse massive amounts of bilateral investments in partner countries which result in increasing political influence. This further raises anxiety among states as to how to deal with an assertive China, a retreating U.S., and the consequences for the international order.

As uncertainty and potential instability loom, Japan, being the third largest economy in the world, the most reliable ally of US in the region, but only a “middle power” compared to US and China, has started initiating measures to address the situation. The stakes are extremely high for Japan. Where these could lead will greatly affect its status and influence in the region.

Abe’s proactive role

In January of 2017 , Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embarked on an Asia-Pacific tour visiting four countries – Philippines, Australia, Indonesia, and Vietnam – within six days. The tour aimed to boost regional ties as he discussed maritime security and trade with leaders. While visiting Australia, Abe said the main priority of his trip was regional security and that he wanted to talk to his friends in the region on joining forces for regional peace.

Abe was the first head of state to visit the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office. The Japanese Prime Minister pledged $8.7 billion worth of business opportunities and private investments as well as speedboats and equipment to combat terrorism in the country. In Vietnam, he committed six patrol vessels to help enhance maritime law enforcement capability in relation to China’s activities in the SCS. Japan and Indonesia have yet to talk about the SCS subject in greater detail but during that visit, Abe obtained Indonesia’s commitment to cooperate in ensuring peace and stability in the region.

Japan also conducted joint Coast Guard maritime exercises with the Philippines and another with Vietnam in June. The joint exercise with the Philippines was on combating piracy and armed robbery at sea, while the one with Vietnam focused on illegal fishing in the SCS. All of these add to the increasing maritime security cooperation between Japan and the two countries in recent years.

As to Japan-US ties, Abe visited Trump in February to strengthen US-Japan ties and get a reaffirmation of US commitments to the Asia Pacific. The visit happened after Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership where Japan and US together make up 75 percent of the TPP collective GDP. Abe’s efforts seem to have paid off at least in part as Trump offered reassurances that US will come to Japan’s aid in its territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands.

However, even with such initiatives taken, Japan recognizes China’s increasing military and economic might and prepares for a future where China’s influence will be greater than that of the US. After a long-time stand of not joining the AIIB (along with US) Abe finally signalled last May that Japan might consider joining the bank. Furthermore, despite earlier hesitance to join the Belt and Road Forum, Japan eventually decided to send a delegation to the Belt and Road Summit in May, led by Toshihiro Nikai, the Secretary-General of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democractic Party. Nikai had a meeting with President Xi and also signalled Tokyo’s readiness to join the bank.

Japan’s role as a middle power is becoming critical to the future of East Asia. Initiatives conducted by a middle power in engaging smaller states, especially economic ones, are helpful in balancing China’s rapidly increasing influence. They can provide economic alternatives for smaller states to prevent them from becoming too dependent on the Chinese economy.

Security initiatives on the other hand provide assurance that despite the looming possibility of US decline, Tokyo stands ready to provide necessary assistance - albeit in the form of capability building. Moreover, joint military or coast guard activities serve as confidence-building measures between the middle power and the smaller states they are engaging with.

Abe’s Asia-Pacific tour, as well as economic and military initiatives, were timely as China pulls the region closer to it through investments in infrastructure. Abe’s economic pledges and support for maritime security are intended to provide a counterweight to China’s offers of economic aid. The tour was Abe’s response to China’s growing dominance and the uncertainty of US foreign policy in the region as the US government continues its transition.

A consistent US foreign policy?

This raises the question as to what the US, as a big power, should be doing. During the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis sought to ease the concerns of allies in the Asia-Pacific by indicating the priority status US gave the region. This was consistent with previous assurances earlier this year by US government officials. Such consistency, especially with regards to regional issues such as territorial disputes and the North Korean missile threat, is important, adding predictability so that countries involved can act accordingly thereby reducing instability.

US also has to continue engaging its allies to make sure that they are on the same page in terms of interests and commitments in the region. The joint statement by US, Japan, and Australia, during the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Manila this year for China and the Philippines to abide by the arbitral ruling on disputed islands in the SCS, showed that the allies agree on their collective interest with respect to the SCS territorial dispute, or at least with respect to the significance of the arbitral ruling.

Of course, consistency must also come from the highest leader – President Trump. Statements which are again incoherent with what his officials are articulating will hurt US reputation and may lead to further confusion. Hence, Trump must observe utmost discretion and avoid statements (and tweets) that increase doubt over US commitments to the region.

As helpful as Japan’s initiatives may be, it ultimately needs the support and commitment of the US if it is to balance against China effectively. After all, China is also a major economic partner of Japan, and Tokyo cannot risk antagonizing Beijing to the extent that its own economic interests are harmed. Aside from strong economic ties, China also holds a strategic role in key security issues such as in reaching out to North Korea. Japan, therefore, can only balance against a big power up to a certain extent. Without the backing of another big power (which in this context is the US) Japan will only succeed in delaying rather than preventing that which could be inevitable – the establishment of a new regional order under a new hegemon - China.