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China, Japan, and Trump’s America

Japan's anxieties about Donald Trump's "America First" orientation and protectionist policies are not surprising. When two allies’ defense capacities are not symmetrical, the more dependent party is bound to worry more about the partnership.

CAMBRIDGE – The key strategic issue in East Asia is the rise of Chinese power. Some analysts believe that China will seek a form of hegemony in East Asia that will lead to conflict. Unlike Europe, East Asia never fully came to terms with the 1930s, and Cold War divisions subsequently limited reconciliation.

Now US President Donald Trump has launched a trade war with China and negotiations with Japan that take aim at Japan’s trade surplus with the United States. While the recent announcement of bilateral talks postpones Trump’s threat of auto tariffs against Japan, critics worry that Trump may push Japan closer to China, whose president, Xi Jinping, is scheduled to hold a summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe later this month.

The balance of power between Japan and China has shifted markedly in recent decades. In 2010, China’s GDP surpassed Japan’s as measured in dollars (though it remains far behind Japan in per capita terms). It is difficult to remember that a little over two decades ago, many Americans feared being overtaken by Japan, not China. Books predicted a Japanese-led Pacific bloc that would exclude the US, and even an eventual war with Japan. Instead, during President Bill Clinton’s administration, the US reaffirmed its security alliance with Japan at the same time that it accepted the rise of China and supported its admission to the World Trade Organization.

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