JUDY WOODRUFF: As we mentioned earlier, the prime minister of Japan was at the White House today, the beginning of several days of talks with the president.
The visit comes amid growing concerns in Asia over trade, over North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, and over China flexing its military muscle.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The bond between our two nations and the friendship between our two peoples runs very, very deep.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The two leaders presented a united front, despite differences that have emerged in the early days of the Trump presidency.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had pushed hard for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, but President Trump has officially abandoned it.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: On the economy, we will seek a trading relationship that is free, fair, and reciprocal, benefiting both of our countries.
SHINZO ABE, Japanese Prime Minister (through interpreter): I am quite optimistic that good results will be seen from the dialogue. Now the free and fair common set of rules will be created for free trade in the region. That was the purpose of TPP. That importance has not changed. I, myself, believe that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Abe also talked up Japanese industry’s contributions to the U.S. economy, after Mr. Trump blasted Toyota last month for planning a new plant in Mexico.
Defense is another potential flash point. During the campaign, candidate Trump suggested Japan and South Korea could pay more for their own defense, up to and including nuclear weapons.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: North Korea has nukes. Japan has a problem with that. I mean, they have a big problem with that. Maybe they would in fact be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea.
QUESTION: With nukes?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Including with nukes, yes, including with nukes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, however, the president appeared to step back.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It is important that both Japan and the United States continue to invest very heavily in the alliance to build up our defense.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Some 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Japan, the largest American outpost in Asia. Last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis made Asia his first overseas visit. In Japan, he reassured Abe that the U.S. will maintain its presence there.
The U.S. military also serves as the main counterweight to China’s increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea. Today, Abe said that must continue.
SHINZO ABE (through interpreter): We need to maintain the freedom of navigation and rule of law. Such international order there must be maintained.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Hours earlier, President Trump spoke by phone for the first time with China’s President Xi Jinping. During the call, Trump retreated from earlier talk of disregarding the one China policy, which officially treats Taiwan as part of China.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It was a very, very warm conversation. I think we are on the process of getting along very well, and I think that will also be very much of a benefit to Japan.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Abe didn’t comment on the Trump-Xi phone call. Later, the leaders flew to the president’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, where they will spend the weekend and play golf.
We take a closer look now at the United States’ relationship with Asia under the Trump presidency with Evan Medeiros. He served as senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff during the Obama administration. He is now a managing director at Eurasia Group. It’s a business consulting company.
Evan Medeiros, welcome back to the program.
EVAN MEDEIROS, Eurasia Group: Thanks. Great to be here.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let’s start with China.
The president telling President Xi Jinping, at President Xi’s request, that the U.S. does go along now with the — want the continue the one China policy. Why is that so important to the Chinese?
EVAN MEDEIROS: Well, it’s important because the one China policy is at the heart of the U.S.-China relationship.
It’s the issue that Kissinger first negotiated with Zhou Enlai about in the early 1970s. It goes to the status of Taiwan and the U.S. position that it acknowledges China’s view that Taiwan is part of China.
So, it’s sort of a foundational leg of the U.S.-China relationship. And absent recognition of the one China policy, it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for Xi Jinping or any Chinese leader to do anything else in the U.S.-China relationship.
JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of a concern was it to the Chinese that President Trump state this, given what he had said during the campaign, a lot of anti-China language, rhetoric coming from candidate Donald Trump, then that phone call that he had early on after the election with the president of Taiwan? How worried were — how concerned were the Chinese?
EVAN MEDEIROS: Well, the Chinese were very concerned. Recognizing, acknowledging the one China policy was essential for Xi Jinping.
It was the primary concern of the Chinese leadership, and they didn’t want to talk about anything else, trade and investment, North Korea, the South China Sea, until the Trump administration reaffirmed the one China policy.
So, in many ways, the phone call last night removed the source of an immediate crisis in the relationship. And now they can move on to talking about and working on other issues.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And one of those issues, of course, is China’s increasingly aggressive stance — we referred to in the report just now — in that region, especially the South China Sea.
Other countries in the region, and Japan, which I’m going to ask you about in just a moment, have been increasingly concerned about what they’re seeing China do. There is also concern about whether China’s role if the North Koreans should try to do something else in a nuclear direction.
So, how worried should the U.S. and other countries in the region be about China?
EVAN MEDEIROS: Well, we should be worried because the Chinese have been increasingly active in the maritime area. They have been more assertive in the economic area. They have been nationalists and mercantilists.
So, there is a variety of Chinese behaviors that we should be concerned about. And the question for the Trump administration is, what are the policies that they’re going to adopt to address these challenges? They’re not new challenges for the United States, but they are very difficult to figure out how to shape China’s behavior, because China’s a big economy, its leverage and influence is growing.
We need Chinese cooperation, but that certainly shouldn’t be a barrier to pushing them on areas where we think they need to change their behavior and recognize U.S. interests.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let’s turn to Japan.
Of course, the president met today with the Japanese prime minister. They’re going to be spending the weekend at President Trump’s place in South Florida. How would you describe, Evan Medeiros, the state of U.S.-Japanese relations right now?
EVAN MEDEIROS: Well, the state of U.S.-Japanese relations right now is great, because Trump is giving Abe a very robust, you could say even lavish, visit to the United States so early on in Trump’s foreign policy evolution.
I mean, he’s essentially putting Japan at the center of his Asia policy and putting alliances at the center of his Asia policy. And he’s doing it in such a robust way, I mean, not just the Oval Office meeting, the lunch, but this weekend in Florida. That’s normally something that you would do after several years of developing a relationship after another leader has demonstrated their willingness to work with you, bring economic deliverables.
So, this is a big deal.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But it also comes after President Trump has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific trade deal, the TPP. This is something the Japanese, that Prime Minister Abe had put a lot of effort into. So, how much of a complication is that going to be?
EVAN MEDEIROS: It’s a complication.
I think Prime Minister Abe and many Asian leaders are concerned about the withdrawal from TPP. They’re concerned about Trump’s support for protectionism and the impact that might have on a lot of export-dependent economies.
They’re worried about Trump’s broader approach to Asia. How engaged is he going to be in Asia? Is ISIS going to get the priority? So the engagement with Japan early on addresses some of those issues, but not all of them.
And then, of course, the big issue on the table is whether or not Abe and Trump are going to agree to eventually negotiate a bilateral free trade agreement. That’s what Trump says is going to replace TPP.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And is that something the Japanese are likely to find to their liking?
EVAN MEDEIROS: I think it is going to be hard.
The U.S. and Japan have tried this in the past, and it hasn’t worked. I think now it’s too politically sensitive for Abe, since he just got his legislature to ratify TPP last fall. It’s probably too early for him to initiate bilateral negotiations now, but I could see in a year or so willing to go down that road.
But the challenge is, is that a series of bilateral trade agreements doesn’t replace the region-wide effect and the positive strategic effect of TPP. It’s sort of because TPP was meant to change the rules of the game, potentially influence China as well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And now it’s not happening.
EVAN MEDEIROS: And now it’s not, that’s right.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Not from the U.S. standpoint.
Well, there is so much more to talk about, big, big part of the world, huge, hugely important relationship.
Evan Medeiros, thank you very much.
EVAN MEDEIROS: Thank you very much. Great to be here.
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