U.S. Vice President Pence and Japanese Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso shake hands in Tokyo on April 18. (Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)
Columnist

The United States and Japan have a historic opportunity to forge a strengthened partnership to confront Asia’s mounting security and economic challenges, senior officials here say. But the Trump administration risks missing this opportunity because of its failure to embrace the need for a broader strategy.

The administrations of President Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe share basic interests, common values and political objectives in a way that sets the stage for the closest bilateral cooperation since World War II. The two allies need to work together to deal with a rising China, confront a dangerous North Korea and manage explosive economic growth in Southeast Asia.

But while the Japanese government envisions a strategic plan that would look over the horizon and account for the entire Asia-Pacific region, for now the Trump team is only talking about the North Korea crisis and specific bilateral issues. On both security and economics, the Japanese are asking the United States to think bigger and more broadly about what could be accomplished.

On security, both sides agree that Japan should take a more assertive role and fulfill its decades-long drive to become a more normal, independent and self-reliant nation. Vice President Pence, visiting Tokyo last week, told me that the Trump administration wholeheartedly supports Abe’s push for Japan to do more.

“The president would like to see Japan and our other allies in the world who have an ability to play a greater role in our common defense play that role and to bear that burden and I think that’s consistent with that aspiration of the Japanese people,” Pence said, adding he raised the issue of sharing the financial burden directly with Abe in their meeting.

For Japan, paying more money for hosting U.S. troops is only one part of the discussion. As Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso noted after meeting Pence, Japan already pays a far greater percentage of the cost of hosting U.S. forces than any European ally does. In fact, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in Tokyo in February that Japan is a model country in that respect.

What Abe wants is for Japan to build military capabilities needed to counter North Korea and also China, for example, by acquiring an offensive-strike capability and expanding Japan’s missile defenses. That’s politically difficult for him domestically and could require financial commitments the Japanese budget can’t bear. But the project would benefit from more support from Washington.

Tokyo also wants to join with Washington to strengthen the rules-based international order in the face of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, as well as Chinese military expansion throughout the Western Pacific. Maritime security is paramount for Japan.

The Trump administration is pursuing a warming of U.S.-China relations, and there’s a concern that relationships with key allies, including Japan, could become subservient to that drive. There’s also a risk that by placing too much emphasis on getting Beijing to fix the North Korea problem, the United States could lose sight of the regional dynamic and also acquiesce to a wide range of China’s bad behaviors.

“Japan and the United States should jointly address these issues,” Kentaro Sonoura, Japan’s vice foreign minister, told me. “What kind of actions will the United States be willing to take? Will the United States be willing to stand on our side or not? These are indeed very important points of interest and concern for us.”

Several Japanese officials told me that they simply don’t have interlocutors in the Trump administration yet. But their message to the United States is clear: While the short-term crisis is North Korea, the long-term challenge is China, and the alliance must not sacrifice the future for the present.

On economics, similarly, the United States is thinking more narrowly than Japan is. Pence and Aso kicked off a new bilateral dialogue and agreed on a basic framework. Following Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there’s no clear message about what Washington wants the end result to be. Pence indicated there could be a bilateral trade agreement sometime in the future. The Japanese want to think bigger.

The broader region is experiencing massive growth, especially in Southeast Asia, and the United States and Japan share an interest in ensuring that trade and investment are based on a rules-based system, as was envisioned by the TPP. By preserving the core of that agreement, free economies that value labor and other standards can compete, Sonoura said.

Trump and Abe have formed a good personal relationship, and there is trust that both sides can build on. But if the alliance doesn’t know where it is going strategically, there can’t be a clear path to get there. The Japanese have their ideas. Now the Trump team has to step up.

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