Country Report: Japan (January 2017)

Editorial Staff

Three shocks left Japan’s media groping for answers at the end of 2016 and the start of 2017. The Trump shock kept playing out after the initial alarm and adjustment in November. This journal covered the first month’s response in detail, so this theme is not a focus here, even as the implications for Asia drew more dire warnings. The Putin shock drew mixed reactions in late November and the first half of December prior to Putin’s arrival in Japan and in the following weeks too as the results of the visit were being assessed—a letdown for many, but plenty of positive spin as well. Finally, the Park shock raised serious questions for the future of Japan-ROK relations, as debate intensified during the last days of November and for much of December with Kim Jong-un looming darkly in the shadows. China and Taiwan and the failure of TPP drew attention at times, often in regard to concerns about Trump.

On December 30, Mainichi drew up a scorecard for four years of Abe’s tenure, giving him more credit for foreign and security policy than in other areas. It awarded 4 of 5 points for improving ties (on the basis of the US alliance), with South Korea, China, and Russia as well as Australia, India, ASEAN states, and others with shared values. Yet, only two points were given for dealing with North Korea. Recent news was less positive. Even before Trump took office, polls showed gaps in US and Japanese attitudes on foreign policy, as Yomiuri wrote on December 21: Japanese less trusting of China, more positive on relations with Russia, and more for dialogue with North Korea. On December 19, it linked the Trump victory to rising opposition to free trade and globalization, as narrow thinking about only what is good for one’s own country spread. With the Busan “comfort woman statue,” Japan-ROK ties were in retreat, it noted on December 31, as it also pointed to the divide in policy between Trump and many Republicans. Much was written about how Abe was striving to stabilize Japan-US relations before Trump took office, as in his trip to Pearl Harbor. Negative too was Yomiuri’s December 28 report on the 10 top news events of the year: 1) Trump; 2) the reversal of globalization; and further down: Sino-Russian illegal behavior; the increasing instability on the Korean Peninsula; and the Philippines election. Events in other parts of the world made the list, but for Asia the impact was earth-shaking.

On January 16 Yomiuri online wrote of the “Trump risk,” focusing on the Sino-US-Russian triangle and warning that use of force to change the global order must not be allowed while expressing concern about developments in all three states. It said that Trump lacks the consciousness of how the US alliances have served as the backbone of the postwar order, his isolationism and unpredictability are sources of risk in 2017, and he lacks a vision of stability in the Asia-Pacific region and will deal with China from tradeoff principles. There are almost no diplomatic specialists in his appointees. His January news conference revealed a lack of strategic thinking. The article sounds a warning that mainstream Japan is nervous about Trump’s arrival. Attempts to find reassurance in November had succumbed to deepening doubts in December with no relief in sight as Trump’s inauguration drew close in January.

Japan-Russia Relations

At year’s end, Abe was eager to put the best light on his summit with Putin, but the path forward in 2017 remained unclear. Anticipating the uncertainty was a Yomiuri article of November 17, which described the anticipated improvement in Russo-US ties as raising both expectations and concerns for Japan. While some commentators saw Trump’s overtures to Putin as advancing “Northern Territories negotiations,” others warned that Putin’s interest in Japan would now diminish. Trump would understand Japan’s position, as his advisor Michael Flynn did in an October visit to Japan, but the paper doubted Japan’s role in Putin’s strategic thinking. In such articles, there was unmistakable recognition that the islands are a chip in bargaining over geopolitical and economic tradeoffs, no longer much of an end in themselves.

The media continued to make the case for why the return of islands matters to Japan. On November 7, Yomiuri reviewed the history of the islands, one of which is only 3.7 kilometers from Hokkaido’s Nemuro city. It described the waters near the islands as one of the world’s three great fishing grounds, reminding readers of how the islands prospered to 1945 with a population of 17,000 Japanese in fishing and canneries. It added that after Japan had surrendered and accepted the Potsdam Declaration, the islands were occupied from August 28 to September 5, and just 6,312 residents survive with an average age of 81, among whom 4,638 are on Hokkaido—1,235 in Nemuro itself. While grave visits have been allowed without visas, advance notification and procedures are required, and there are limitations on where, when, and how many can go. The article ends by noting that the governor of Hokkaido met with Abe on October 31 in the hope that even some progress could be made quickly for the elderly former residents. There is no sense that islanders demand four islands.

A November 13 Asahi article detailed one of the economic carrots Japan is dangling before Russia as it studies bypassing the sanctions. It noted interest in upgrading the port of Vanino at a cost of 10 billion yen to soften Russia’s stance on the issue of the Northern Territories. Located near the terminus of the BAM railroad and serving exports of wood products, metals, and coal, which Japan uses to generate electricity, the port would be modernized as part of the economic plan for the Russian Far East. A November 2 Asahi article had described another element in Abe’s plan, 20 billion yen for LNG from the Yamal project on the Arctic Ocean, from which exports are set to begin in 2017.  This too is depicted as a way to soften Russia for a territorial deal and a step in making Abe’s 8-point economic plan more concrete. Yet, Russia’s quest for big deals was hard to satisfy. Tokyo Shimbun commented on November 25 on its unrealistic dream of extending the Trans-Siberian railroad to Hokkaido, when that island’s railroads are already in the red. Asahi was no more positive about this on November 29, commenting on how Stalin tried to link Sakhalin to the mainland in 1950-1953 before his death terminated the project and that the costs are prohibitive. The railroad gauges differ, standard international containers would not fit on the narrow gauges, the vast area of Siberia and the Russian Far East has too few people and too little industry to add any load except natural resources, and Russia is being bypassed by China, which prefers the route through Kazakhstan to Europe than this northern route. This is a grim economic picture for what is called Russia’s “illusion.”

Alexander Panov on November 17 in Mainichi damped down expectations, saying that the goal of the coming summit was only to agree on a roadmap. Relations had to be raised to a higher level, i.e. economic and security ties improved despite the US and Chinese sides resistance and the demilitarization of any islands transferred. The goalposts have been moved unexpectedly for many Japanese with Russia now only dangling the prospect of transferring some islands after it has achieved its goals.

Sato Masaru on November 20 in Sankei explained Ulyukayev’s arrest on the 15th, which dealt a blow to Russo-Japan economic talks, as a struggle with Sechin over which faction controls economic dealings with Japan, while also at work is a lobby opposed to losing fishing grounds to Japan and a military group against the transfer of the islands to Japan. Sato disagrees with Japanese interpretations of a one-man dictatorship, when Putin actually is balancing different power groups. Two days earlier, Sankei had warned that the siloviki taking a tough line on foreign policy had won with Sechin, and this would deal a blow to the territorial negotiations. Mainichi had a similar take on November 17, arguing that the arrest was a blow against the liberal camp without noting how Japan’s plans for wide-scale investment might be affected by the weakening of this camp. The arrest came at a time when big plans for economic cooperation were being aired, but Russia had decided to slow the process down, given reluctance to talk about the territorial issue beyond joint development.

As the center of attention shifted in the period between the Abe-Putin meeting in Lima and their meeting in Japan to joint economic development, on November 22 Yomiuri reported on Putin’s call for Japanese firms to establish industries on the islands and form joint ventures with Russian firms, reminding readers that in the 1990s when Russia sought this, cooperation failed due to the problem of agreeing to Russian laws compromising Japan’s claim to sovereignty. Whether processing of marine products or tourism, the impression was that it would not be easy this time. Although after articles in late November stressing Japan’s wariness about economics first there was more effort to put a positive spin on Putin’s visit, the reality was that Putin’s tougher line in November had lowered expectations greatly, and when Japan appeared to accept the economics first strategy, Russia could claim a major success. Articles said that Japan was readying support, e.g., setting up a 100 billion yen fund for its companies advancing into the Russian Far East, in Mainichi on December 5.

Yomiuri, as usual, found great promise in what was being negotiated between Abe and Putin, e.g., praising joint economic development on the islands and noting the plans for business persons to enjoy visa-free travel too. Yet, it was insistent, as in a December 5 editorial, that economic benefits for Russia must be conditioned on progress in territorial negotiations. The paper took exception to Lavrov’s call on December 1 for a peace treaty first, insisting that demarcation of territory must be a precondition for that, and it warned that one must not overlook recent actions at odds with an improvement in relations, as in Russia’s decision on anti-ship missiles.

Yet, skeptics in Japan doubted two key elements of Abe’s strategy: that Russia would recognize Japan’s sovereignty over even two islands, and that Japan could distance Russia from China. On November 16 in Mainichi Shimbun, Hakamada Shigeki made the case that Putin’s position had hardened to the point that even if he agreed to the transfer of two islands, he raised the possibility that sovereignty would remain with Russia, while warning that joint economic development under Russian authority means that Japan would be recognizing that the islands are Russian territory. The author added that Russia considers it necessary to keep stable, long-term relations with China, and he is concerned that Japan’s acceptance of Russia’s annexation of Crimea as well as agreement with Russia even to the return of only two islands would weaken its appeal to the world against China’s escalating actions around the Senkaku Islands. The shadow of China looms heavily over Japan’s talks with Russia.

Even a long-time supporter of a compromise on the islands, Iwashita Akihiro, had lost hope, as seen in his article in Asahi Shimbun on December 8. He faulted Japan for ten lost years in talks with Russia, suggested that Putin now found more promise in talking to Trump, and equated running up against a wall with North Korea on the abductions issue with the situation Abe now faced in territorial talks with Russia.

Sankei continued to strive to show that the occupation of all four islands was illegal, reexamining on December 5 the Yalta accords as if they violated international law and were a case of Roosevelt exceeding his authority. In a November 30 editorial it argued against Abe’s diplomacy from many directions: Russia is expansionist, under Yeltsin it confirmed that four islands are in contention, Putin only wants economic gains, etc. On the opposite side of the political spectrum there was wariness too that Russia would use joint economic development, treating it as a precondition, just to confirm its sovereignty over the islands, as Tokyo Shimbun warned on November 22.

Ignoring Putin’s demonization of the United States, Japanese boosters of Russian ties are prone to idealize its turn to the East, e.g., Shimotomai in Ekonomisto of November 15 perceives the Ukraine crisis as convincing Russians they are not Europeans and propelling them further into Asia. He predicts that with economic development the Russian Far East, welcoming Japan’s technological cooperation—part of the 4th industrial revolution—, will be transformed beyond our imagination. Such romanticism often replaces looking closely at real challenges posed by Putin.  Yet, the same issue carries articles warning that firms operating with Russian-style capitalism are not competitive, that bad Russia-US relations leave financial barriers for Japanese energy cooperation with Russia, and that should Russia return two islands there is little chance of more islands or of relations improving significantly.

By December, some Japanese were questioning what the Japan-Russia quest for new relations means in a four-power great power context. On December 4, Asahi carried pictures of the four leaders, including Trump, suggesting that big changes are in store—a day before Tokyo Shimbun argued that the Obama-Abe relationship had hit a low point with US warnings against drawing closer to Russia without explaining why this is so objectionable now. The quadrangle is depicted as Japan seeking close ties to Russia with the aim of containing China and Russia expecting expanded ties to Japan helping it with its economic difficulties; Trump uprooting US policy toward Russia, but Russia enjoying the best ever honeymoon with China, which Trump is keen on confronting. There is potential for great flux, but the paper doubts Japan’s chances of success in turning Russia from China. Academics were split on whether to find hope in this combustible mix or not. A Shimotomai Nobuo long Asahi article on December 3 was the most optimistic, expecting Russo-US relations to be important for stability and peace in the world. With Abe ahead of Trump in working with Putin and quick to meet Trump in New York, the possibility is great for Japan’s ties with Russia. In contrast, Hakamada finds Putin only interested in Japan for economic benefits and in no mood to alter its great power relationships. The fact that Putin only would be granted a working meeting in Tokyo and would not get to meet the Emperor was seen in Russia as something of a slight, for which Abe needed to compensate with more economic incentives. The Russian media only covers this summit as an advance in economic cooperation, contradicting the messages from the Kantei and those around it brimming with optimism despite Putin’s attempts to tone down expectations. Hakamada calls for changing Japan’s policy toward Russia.

A Sankei article on December 8 observed that 2+2 talks with Russia would resume after an interval of three years at the start of 2017 in Moscow and suggested that the purpose is to contain China’s growing presence in the Arctic Circle, while Japan sees this as forging an environment for progress in talks over the Northern Territories.  Views will be exchanged on North Korea and China, and the article stresses shared fears about China’s maritime advance into the Okhotsk Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Yet, it adds that, given Russia’s stationing of anti-ship missiles on Etorofu and Kunashiri, Japan seeks to link security to its 8-point economic plan while speeding talks on the Northern Territories. Security talks had been on hold after the Crimea annexation, but now are again part of Abe’s overall approach to forging ties to Putin.

The January issue of Chuo Koron carried five articles on the Abe-Putin talks, two by former prime minister Mori Yoshiro—a go-between in the talks—and Ozawa Ichiro, a leading politician who in 1990 had tried to broker an agreement. Mori was asked why his Irkutsk summit with Putin in 2001 had not led to a breakthrough. He said that others in Japan had demanded a 100 percent victory, and that if talks stall, it is okay with Russia since it controls the islands. Reversing its position after Koizumi took office, Japan aroused distrust in Russia, which was slow to dissipate. Mori finds the foreign ministry in Japan at fault as well as the anti-Japan faction in Russia’s foreign ministry, which was battling against a pro-Japan faction. He traces Putin and Abe’s interest in an agreement in 2013-2014, attributing failure to US opposition after the Ukraine crisis arose, and Putin’s disappointment over this. Given Japan’s lack of nuclear weapons, it had little choice, Mori tried to explain to Putin. Yet, he argued that given Putin’s desire for developing the Russian Far East and what Japan has to offer, Abe is making a strong case with his economic overtures to Russia in 2016. After all, Russia is a close neighbor, which can be a danger or a friend to Japan. Also, Japan can draw Russia closer versus China and can find a place between the United States and Russia. Clearly, great power leverage is a driving force for Mori, while it is essentially a matter of following through on the old territorial deal he struck in 2000 and using economics as a lever—this time made easier by two popular leaders.

Ozawa welcomed Russia’s turn to the East with new consciousness of its importance and expects that Russia’s coastal areas and all of the Kurile Islands would fall into Japan’s economic orbit through commercial ties. Yet, he is wary of linkages of trade to the territorial issue and to state involvement, while warning against damaging ties to the United States with financial help to Russia. Ozawa also warns against the view that Russia can be swung against China. Finally, while he is not opposed to a start by securing the return of two islands, he insists that the goal be all four islands. Ozawa’s position is much more skeptical than Mori’s about Abe’s ongoing talks.

The next article by Abiru Taisuke insists that the key is making Russia strategically neutral versus China, taking advantage of Russia’s concern about overdependence on China in developing Siberia and the Russian Far East. To reduce the risk, political and economic ties with Japan are valued. Abiru argues that Putin even before Abe took office has been pressing for closer ties, that geopolitics is the driving force, and that the Ukraine crisis slowed the process with the worsening of Russo-US ties even as Abe did his utmost to minimize the fallout for Japan-Russia ties. Sino-Russia ties are now closer, alarming Abe, but Abiru equates Abe’s turn to Russia in opposition to China with Netanyahu’s rejection of Obama’s pressure in opposition to Iran with similar overtures to Putin, trying to keep it neutral and, also, refusing to impose sanctions over Ukraine. To forge the necessary security and economic ties to meet Russia’s needs takes time, and Abiru expects Putin’s reelection in 2018 followed by Abe’s extension of time in office to offer a three-year chances for ties to improve.

On January 14 Sato Masaru in Gendai Business wrote that Japan’s mass media was too harsh on the summit results: “there was no success on the territorial question,” Russia “ate on economics only and ran,” etc. In fact, this was a great success, he adds. Putin stated at the press conference that the peace treaty is not a secondary matter. Not only did he make historical references that indicate he will transfer two islands, but he hinted at the possibility of some kind of compromise on the other two. Yet, he also hinted at the need to dispel Russian security concerns related to US-Japan ties. Putin repeated the narrative that Dulles had blocked the 1956 Soviet-Japanese deal by threatening not to return Okinawa—a secret openly divulged by Japan’s foreign ministry only in time for him to include it in his 2012 book, Sato said in a manner. Since allowing the USSR to retain two islands was not required by the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Dulles said, it might happen that the United States would annex Okinawa. This was said more than once, and it was not a personal opinion, but US policy. Now, Sato argues, since the Foreign Ministry does not have this document, the United States must make it available to its ally as an indispensable condition for resolving the dispute. In this claim, Sato is blaming the US side for the dispute and demanding that it show the document that would prove that the deal Abe is negotiating now is a just one. This contradicts US records that indicate Dulles was bolstering Japan’s negotiating position, not setting down an ultimatum for Japan.

Foresight on January 11 asks what to do now that the territorial talks have failed and Putin will make no concessions before the presidential elections of March 2018. It summarizes Russia’s position as: 1) never returning Kunashiri and Etorofu; 2) forging trust through economic cooperation and joint economic activity on the four islands; 3) even in the case of returning the other two islands, signing a peace treaty first; and 4) making the US-Japan security treaty a barrier to returning the two small islands. Japan’s position had shifted to two islands plus alpha (postponed discussion of the other two) and Russia’s was two islands minus alpha, but Putin has added conditions that make his position “no islands,” and should there be two islands the timing of the return is left indefinite allowing Russia to demand ever more economic cooperation. The article quotes Russian sources calling Putin’s summit in Japan a big success, conceding nothing and gaining economic returns, changing the terms of the negotiations, and busting the sanctions. Yet, the article insists that economic deals were not much either, apart from some in energy, and depend on a new investment environment. A comment by a Russian official that Russian law would have to apply also has contradicted the agreement on joint economic development. The article says that Russia’s turn to the East is ending as it looks back to the United States and Europe and pursues two wars with little time to spare for Japan policy. Meanwhile, Putin faces increased public apathy and a stagnant economy, appealing to patriotism in a manner that makes talk of even two islands unlikely before his reelection. The article closes with a proposal to shock Putin and Trump alike by improving ties to China, furthering Japan’s position instead of Russia being backed by its China ties.

The Korean Peninsula

The mood in October was upbeat about tougher policies toward North Korea before uncertainty spread after Trump’s election. Park Cheolhee in Tokyo Shimbun on October 9 wrote of a shift in US policy from strategic patience, marked by more unilateral sanctions and talk of the possibility of a preemptive strike, along with reduced expectations for China’s cooperation in resolving the issue. Sankei on October 2 exposed a smuggling ring for North Korean matsutake mushrooms via Jilin province in China, mislabeling them as Chinese, importing 150 tons of a very expensive product, whose price averages 8,000-10,000 yen a kilogram. Control of this export rests with Kim Jong-un’s personal fund, which means that the money can be used directly for the development of nuclear weapons and missiles. With this article, Sankei reminds readers of the North Korean threat and China’s duplicity. Tokyo Shimbun on December 8 also blamed China, pointing to a huge jump in its export to North Korea of aviation fuel, some of which was used in a September air show in violation of the March sanctions only permitting civilian use. While praise was being given to Chinese approval of new UN sanctions, skepticism was rampant.

November 24 newspapers covered the GSOMIA agreement with South Korea after a delay of four years due to opposition from South Korean public opinion. As Mainichi explained, Japan had been pressing all year for early signing of this agreement, given the growing menace from North Korea and striving to capitalize on bilateral success in realizing the “comfort women” agreement. Also noted is the Trump effect, leading the two US allies to take precautionary measures and increase the chances of acting together to shape US policy. Yet, the article finds Seoul still balking on an integrated missile defense system amid concern over China’s intense opposition and fervent public opposition in South Korea. Even implementation of GSOMIA is in doubt with Park’s remaining hold on power already tenuous, readers were being warned. When Park’s situation worsened, newspapers on November 30 warned that the opposition was using Park’s cooperation with Japan against her. Asahi reported that emotional responses to both the “comfort women” and GSOMIA deals were occurring, leaving in doubt whether Japan’s national interests would be damaged. The turnabout in the bilateral relationship over one year was now in jeopardy, as Japanese felt helpless. 

Yomiuri on November 24 pointed to the limits of GSOMIA. Only intelligence related to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs would be exchanged in spite of calls for a more wide-ranging agreement from the Japanese side. Should an anti-Japan and pro-North Korean policy line be taken by the next ROK president, the automatic extension could be halted. After nearly four years of blaming Park for deterioration of Japan-ROK relations, suddenly the most worrisome prospect is her departure from office. Mainichi November 18 articles by Kimura Kan, who worried about Seoul reneging on the THAAD agreement with the United States and actions by Donald Trump that would lead to an ROK shift toward China, and by Okuzono Hideki, who appealed to the Japanese side to exercise caution in language that could arouse the Korean public, were concerned about the situation. On November 30 in Mainichi, Hiraiwa Shunji bemoaned the bad timing of the Park crisis, given Trump’s uncertain impact and the urgent need to sustain close US-ROK-Japan relations. He depicted Japan as in a situation it could hardly predict, as the North Korea threat may soon intensify. The answer here and elsewhere is for Japan to do even more to sustain close trilateralism even if the way to do this is left unexplained. Another blow came from the cancellation of the CJK summit expected in December, which would have brought Park to Japan for the first time as president and created an opportunity for increased regional cooperation, as Yomiuri said on December 1. Since Seoul is seen as the driving force in this triangle, it is a loser, Japanese assert. Also Mainichi on December 10 regretted the setback to improving Japan-ROK relations. Bilateral relations, trilateral US ties, and the struggle vs. North Korea are all set back. Japan had valued improving ROK ties both in the face of Chinese expansionism and as a factor in boosting trilateralism with China, but the situation has become clouded.

Sankei on November 27 was unambiguous that the core of the demonstrations in Seoul is pro-North Korean and anti-Japanese forces. It warned that Pyongyang is the source stirring anti-government opinion, and it cast the direst image of how Seoul is shifting, while Yomiuri, unlike in 2014-2015, was more circumspect in its evaluations. Tokyo Shimbun on November 26 celebrated the GSOMIA agreement as enabling the ROK and Japan to deal directly with each other rather than going through the United States on intelligence on North Korea, but it worried that in the movement against Park, the anti-Japan emotions have again been aroused, leaving the future unsettled. As Asahi argued on November 30, a dark cloud now hung over Japan-ROK relations. Various papers saw this as a win for North Korea and some for China as well. 

On January 5 Nikkei warned that the next Korean administration needs to abide by its promises or lose the trust of the international community. Complaining that not only is the “comfort women” statue still standing by the Japanese embassy, another one has been erected by the Japanese consulate in Busan. Calling such actions a violation of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, the article suggests that patience is being lost over the impact of NGOs interfering with results of diplomacy.

On January 15, Japan in depth covered South Korean public opinion, warning of an explosion of misunderstandings with negative impact on Japan-ROK relations: Choi Soon-sil, the villain in Park’s downfall is supposedly said to have instructed her to deploy THAAD and sign GSOMIA with Japan. Daiyamondo online on January 17 also linked fanning anti-Japanese emotions to trying to win popularity in today’s political transition, and it charged that South Korea is losing the trust of the international community by not abiding with its agreement with Japan on the “comfort women” issue and by its inconsistent policies toward the great powers. Yet, it argues that sooner or later Seoul will have to strengthen ties with Washington and Tokyo. As Japan and other states build ties, when Seoul has leadership again and takes a longer term perspective, as it seeks to stabilize its economy, it is likely to change course, recognizing international support for Japan’s stance. The same day this source argued that Trump’s North Korean policy requires Japan-ROK cooperation.

A December 2 Tokyo Shimbun article on new sanctions against North Korea noted that despite some expected results there are holes: China strongly opposed limits on workers being sent abroad, North Korean is receiving more foreign currency from sending fisherman to work on the boats of other countries and letting Chinese boats fish in its waters, and there are limits to the effectiveness of the new sanctions even if coal export revenues are to be limited to USD 400 million after China since June added to its imports in defiance of the March UN resolution. Sankei and Yomiuri both on December 2 blamed China for the hole in the March sanctions resolution and the delay from September for the Security Council to approve the new resolution.

A January 14 Sankei article described Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey just assassinated, as the closest foreigner to Kim Jong-il who had spent half of his career in North Korea, most recently to 2006, and whose daughter is now at the Russian embassy in Pyongyang. It described the loss of Karlov as a big blow to Russian North Korean diplomacy. Karlov had accompanied Kim Jong-il on the entire 24-day 2001 train trip to meet Putin, and he was expected to focus on improving ties to North Korea after returning to Moscow from his post in Turkey.

Taiwan

Trump’s signs of changing US policy toward Taiwan drew a mixed response in Japan as Sankei, which had welcomed Tsai Ing-wen’s election and warned that China is using respect for the “1992 consensus” as a pressure card, took close interest. On December 8, it found that China’s attitude had changed abruptly toward Trump after his December 2 phone conversation with Tsai. Instead of a businessman who would be willing to deal, they now saw someone who would not avoid security clashes for the sake of economic interests. Yet, the fact that Peter Navarro is advising Trump is giving Japanese concern too. While a tilt toward Taiwan may be welcome, a lack of understanding of China and the economic complexities of the region are treated as symptoms of isolationism and brashness that needlessly causes China to lose face.

In December, Japanese media offered differing explanations of what was unfolding in the PRC-Taiwan-US triangle. On December 5, Asahi carried the viewpoint of Chinese expert Shen Dingli warning how China could respond to Trump crossing a red line and indicating that Trump needs dialogue with North Korea to halt the development of nuclear weapons and, therefore, must accept China’s role. Implied is the notion that offending China over Taiwan is unsustainable. Since Trump is a businessman who did not strongly criticize China over Tiananmen in 1989, human rights is not likely to be on the table, but economics and security are. If Trump sticks to those principles that have guided Sino-US relations since the 1970s, cooperation can be sustained. Other articles warned of the worsening of Sino-US relations—not a welcome development for Japanese progressives nor for many on the center. In the December 3 Yomiuri it was clear that mainstream conservatives also were adverse to breaking the foundation of Sino-US relations. Given Trump’s decision to quit TPP, commentaries suggested that unilateral moves toward Taiwan would compound the problem of willful US moves that combine retreat with unilateral disruptions. Some focused on economic protectionists at odds with Japan’s policies, while others aimed at security hardliners with little East Asian expertise also deemed problematic. The idea that Trump would act in concert with Abe was not confirmed in these reactions.Yomiuri on December 8 found China’s response moving from optimism to alarm over Trump, combining economics and security. Asahi on November 28 pointed to the additional military burden Trump sought from Japan, calling for Japan to join the other US allies to try to dissuade Trump, while striving to prevent a power vacuum.  The mood over Trump was growing more skeptical at the end of 2016, and this still was the case in the first half of January as the his inauguration was drawing near.

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