The essence of sumo wrestling is simple: two enormous men struggle to throw each other out of a ring. On Sunday, Donald Trump attended a major sumo tournament in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, awkwardly awarding the newly invented “President’s Trophy” to the winner.
The metaphor was obvious: Throughout his state visit, Trump was like a sumo wrestler who Abe desperately wanted to move on key policy positions, but the president wasn’t budging. The most important of these disagreements is over Asia’s biggest immediate threat, North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un.
In assessing North Korea’s recent launch of several short-range ballistic missiles, Trump simply waved them off, saying it “disturbed some of my people” but he wasn’t worried. Those “people” include his own intelligence community and national security advisor, John Bolton, who earlier that day called the launches as significant violations of UN sanctions. Trump’s blase attitude also ran contrary to the views of his Japanese hosts, who are directly threatened by Kim’s shorter-range missiles. This mistake on the president’s part will have unfortunate knock-on effects.
First and most worrisome is the potential effect on the US-Japanese alliance. Tokyo wants help on a range of geopolitical, economic and trade fronts. These include support in its lingering territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which is threatening to heat up; buying more advanced military hardware; continued ability to sell in US markets, especially automobiles; more pressure on Kim to return Japanese citizens abducted by his regime; and -- above all -- solidarity on stopping Kim’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
By creating so much daylight between himself and America’s strongest ally in northeast Asia, the president weakens US credibility and geopolitical strength throughout the region.
This is doubly unfortunate because in terms of furthering US security goals in Asia, Abe has been a dream come true: standing up for US freedom of navigation missions in the South China Sea; criticizing China’s building of artificial islands there; placing the largest foreign order for the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and buying a number of E-2 Hawkeye surveillance planes; boosting the budget for the Japanese self-defense force and pushing through law that allows it to take action outside Japan to defend allies.
A second concern is the economic cold war brewing with China. As the prospects for an ultimate trade truce with the Chinese dim, the US will need economic leverage in the region. The ideal mechanism would have been the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement between the US and 11 close allies rejected by the Trump administration.
With TPP membership off the table, the US will need a network of bilateral trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific. Japan, the third-largest economy in the world, is at the top of the list. But disagreements over North Korea will bleed over into new trade negotiations. And without a strong bilateral agreement with Tokyo, Washington is in a weaker position in trade talks with China.
Finally, Trump’s public disagreement with his top intelligence advisers over North Korea is of domestic as well as international concern. (We’ve seen this troubling dynamic before, particularly in assessing Russian interference in the 2016 elections and the depth of Vladimir Putin’s schemes). Trump is clearly trying to protect what he views as a signature foreign policy achievement: walking the US away from his own “fire and fury” policy toward North Korea to one that puts patient negotiations at the forefront.
In and of itself, negotiation rather than confrontation is reasonable, and perhaps only realistic way to resolve the North Korea problem. But giving Kim too much leeway and respect, especially by ignoring Japan’s legitimate worries over his missile program, will embolden him and encourage China and Russia to disregard sanctions on North Korea.
The president would have been wiser to embrace Abe’s view that Kim is not only a murderous tyrant with an iron grip on his impoverished nation’s throat, but also a clear and present danger to the region and ultimately to America.
Throughout the president’s visit, Abe worked hard to appease: A visit with the new emperor; a round of golf with former PGA star Isao Aoki; and cheeseburgers made with US beef. But none of it seemed to sway Trump or persuade him to straighten out his confused policy for a vital region. Sumo-like, Trump dominates the center of the ring in northeast Asia, and it looks like nobody will force him to shift his stance anytime soon.
By James Stavridis
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.