By John Geddie, Tim Kelly and Yoshifumi Takemoto
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan, the United States’ closest ally in Asia, is trying to send a message to U.S. presidential candidates. Donald Trump: Don’t try to make a deal with China that could undo years of collective efforts to rein in Beijing and jeopardize the region’s fragile peace.
Tokyo has stepped up its attempts to engage with those close to Trump in recent weeks, as the 77-year-old’s victories in Republican primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire saw him emerge in some polls as the front-runner for the presidential election in November.
The outreach — detailed in mostly unpublished interviews with six Japanese officials — comes as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida prepares for a state visit to the United States in April at the invitation of President Joe Biden.
Japan’s efforts included sending a senior ruling party official to try to meet with Trump, and engaging Japanese diplomats with think tanks and former U.S. officials aligned with Trump, three of the officials said.
Tokyo’s main concern is that if Trump returns to power, it could seek some sort of trade or security deal between the world’s two largest economies that could undermine recent efforts by the Group of Seven (G7) to counter China, according to the report. six officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Trump, who reached a trade deal with Beijing in 2019 that later expired, did not mention any potential deal with China during his campaign for the 2024 inauguration.
Japanese officials said they had no specific knowledge of Trump’s plans, but based their concerns on his public comments and actions during his 2017-2021 term, during which he avoided multilateral cooperation and defended his relationships with authoritarian leaders such as China’s Xi Jinping. , and unsuccessfully sought a nuclear deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Two Japanese Foreign Ministry officials said they fear Trump is willing to weaken U.S. support for neighboring Taiwan in pursuit of a deal with China. They said such a move could embolden Beijing, which claims Taiwan and has not ruled out seizing the island by force.
A Trump aide told Reuters that no recent meetings had taken place between Trump and Japanese officials. They did not want to comment further.
When asked in an interview with Fox News in July 2023 whether the United States should help defend Taiwan if it meant going to war with China, Trump said: “If I answer that question, it will make me in a very bad negotiating position. said, Taiwan took all our chip business. We made our own chips. Now they are made in Taiwan.
Tokyo also fears that Trump will hit Japan again with protectionist trade measures such as steel tariffs, and is reviving its demands that that country pay more to cover the cost of stationing US forces in the country, according to the six Japanese officials.
Japan’s outreach efforts are part of a preemptive approach to understand whether these issues are likely to resurface and to convey Tokyo’s positions, two of the officials said. Trump said this week that if elected, he would block Japan’s Nippon Steel’s proposed $14.9 billion acquisition of US Steel.
In a statement, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said it was “following the U.S. presidential election with great interest,” while noting the U.S.’s bipartisan commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Ado Machida, a Tokyo-based businessman who served on Trump’s transition team after his 2016 election victory, said Japanese officials were eager to engage with his former boss.
“If it wants to make a deal with China, Japan must try to get ahead of the curve and understand its potential role in supporting its interests in the United States and China,” Machida said.
Both the Chinese and Taiwanese foreign ministries have said they will work closely with the United States regardless of the election outcome.
The late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with Trump after his victory in 2016. The two men subsequently formed a close relationship, forged over hours spent on the golf course, that helped defuse several controversial issues.
SETTING THE TREND
Taro Aso, a prominent figure in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who was vice prime minister during Trump’s term, traveled to the United States last month to try to meet with Trump, but he was unable to see him, according to three of the members. six civil servants. Aso’s office declined to comment.
Japan’s new U.S. ambassador, Shigeo Yamada, was appointed late last year with specific instructions to connect with the Trump campaign, according to two of the officials. The Japanese Embassy in Washington, on behalf of the ambassador, declined to comment on matters related to the US elections.
Complicating matters for Tokyo is that many of Trump’s former cabinet members who focused on Japan – like Mike Pence, Jim Mattis and Mike Pompeo – are no longer considered as close to him, Michael Green said. a former American official at the head of the United States. University of Sydney Study Centre.
Sen. Bill Hagerty, Trump’s former envoy to Japan who some analysts say could play a leading role in a second Trump administration, met with several Japanese officials during a visit to Tokyo earlier this year.
He also sat alongside Aso and Yamada at an event hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Japan during Aso’s trip to the United States, according to photos posted by the embassy on social media.
Hagerty told Reuters that Japanese interlocutors “know Trump and know that he is someone who wants to do business” in the region, adding that Japan’s main concerns – Chinese and North Korean aggression – looked like those of 2016.
Robert O’Brien, Trump’s former national security adviser, also has ties to Japanese officials, two of the sources said. O’Brien, whose US consultancy Global Strategies counts former Japanese national security adviser Shigeru Kitamura among its ranks, did not respond to requests for comment.
“MERS AT RISK”
Tokyo is particularly concerned that Trump’s return could create volatility with China. In engaging with people Japan considers close to Trump, he is emphasizing the benefits of a multilateral approach to China policy, two of the Japanese officials said, such as last year’s G7 deal to countering economic coercion and reducing risks related to critical supply chains. .
While Biden has repeatedly said the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion — although the White House later walked back his comments — Trump has been less clear on his position.
“We don’t want risky seas that invite misunderstandings,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior researcher at the Tokyo-based policy research organization Sasakawa Peace Foundation, who said he was aware of Japan’s attempts to tend hand to Trump.
In the foreword to a new edition of his memoir released this week, former US national security adviser John Bolton wrote that if re-elected, Trump could encourage China to impose a blockade on Taiwan.
One challenge for Japan is determining who will try to appease Trump if he returns to power.
Officials and analysts say Kishida, whose ratings have plunged following several political scandals, may not be in control in the Nov. 5 U.S. presidential election. The PLD must hold a vote for its leadership by the end of September.
“Clearly Trump is a factor” in choosing the LDP leader, Watanabe said, adding that the party will ideally look for a candidate who speaks English, builds relationships with Trump and plays golf.
“A good golfer is a bad one. You just have to be a good golfer to not beat Trump,” he said.
(Reporting by John Geddie, Tim Kelly, Yoshifumi Takemoto, Yukiko Toyoda, Kaori Kaneko and Sakura Murakami in Tokyo; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Tim Reid in Washington, Ben Blanchard in Taipei and Laurie Chen and Liz Lee in Beijing; editing by David Crawshaw)