Trump and the "Trilateral Relationship" in Northeast Asia

February 15, 2017

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe at the White House, February 10, 2017. CREDIT: Government of Japan (CC)

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City. Today I'm speaking with Michael Green. He is a former Bush administration official currently based at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

Great to speak with you today, Mike.

MICHAEL GREEN: Good to talk to you. Thanks.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you think the recent U.S.-Japan summit went between Trump and Prime Minister Abe in Florida?

MICHAEL GREEN: It surpassed expectations. The Japanese side achieved almost everything that it wanted in a summit with President Trump. The prime minister invested a great amount of personal time and prestige in getting a good meeting, and he got one.

I think to some extent it turned the wheel a bit in the Trump administration's overall approach to Asian foreign policy for the better, because there was an awful lot of confusion and controversy over the president's statements and positions on, not only Japan, but allies generally in China.

I think it also helped to solidify a little bit the more mainstream views of people like Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson. On the whole it was a good outcome, after a couple of weeks of real uncertainty about relationships in Asia and the presidency.

DEVIN STEWART: What were the Japanese trying to achieve?

MICHAEL GREEN: They went in first and foremost with the goal of establishing a warm, personal relationship, and a trusting relationship, between Prime Minister Abe and President Trump. This, especially for conservative politicians like Abe, or before him Koizumi and Nakasone, is a really high priority to demonstrate to the neighborhood—and particularly the Chinese—that the United States and Japan will not be separated, but also so that the prime minister has a personal relationship in case something goes wrong; whether it's a controversy in trade relations, or in the Senkaku Islands dispute with China, and so forth. So that was number one: personal relationship.

Number two: They wanted to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to defend Japan, and especially that less certain area, defend the Japanese if the Senkaku Islands are under a conflict with China. Every president since Clinton has affirmed that Article 5 of our security treaty, the defense clause, applies to the Senkaku Islands for reasons internal and external—Abe really wanted that, and he got it.

Finally, they wanted a framework for talking about the trade and economic relationships bilaterally and in the region to replace the huge vacuum created by Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and they got that in the form of this dialogue now between Vice President Pence and Deputy Prime Minister Tarō Asō.

DEVIN STEWART: What do you anticipate happening from this framework? What are the concrete next steps?

MICHAEL GREEN: It was a Japanese idea that was shepherded through the White House by a handful of experienced former economic officials at high levels of the Bush and Reagan administrations, like Kenneth Juster, the deputy economic advisor on the National Security Council (NFC), and people like that. It is fairly broad. Abe agreed that in that they ought to talk about the Trump administration's idea of a bilateral U.S.-Japan free trade agreement (FTA). The Trump team says that it is willing to do bilateral FTAs; it doesn't like multilateral. There is not a lot of policy, economic, or strategic logic to that, but it has kind of become a leitmotif, a theme, for the president. Abe said, "Okay, we can talk about that."

But the Japanese side also wants to talk about other trade architecture and economic architecture in the region, including China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and what that means for the region; or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP); or TPP maybe without the Americans. All of this is a way to get at rebooting a discussion about a Trans-Pacific multilateral economic or trade agreement.

Ultimately the real purpose of TPP is to set the rules and set the stage so that China doesn't cheat. Abe was very specific about this in the press conference when he talked about the market distortions caused by state-owned enterprises and by cyber theft. He was talking about China, not U.S.-Japan. It is a way to shoehorn back into a high-level dialogue a strategic way to talk about what TPP was supposed to do, and perhaps find a way back to it.

There are other areas where Donald Trump and Shinzō Abe agree. They both like coal—President Obama hated coal to an extent where it really kind of jammed up cooperation in Asia more broadly; so that's all right, they'll talk about that. Donald Trump is big on infrastructure investment in the United States. The Japanese companies, Japan Bank for International Cooperation and the government development assistance bank—all of these institutions want to invest more in the United States anyway, so that is part of it.

It is fairly broad, but I see it as primarily getting back to a TPP-like arrangement. It may take one or two or three years, but that, I think, is the Japanese goal.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned the possibility of a U.S.-Japan bilateral FTA. It sounds like you're fairly optimistic about the prospects of such an agreement. What do you suppose is the likelihood of that happening?

MICHAEL GREEN: I'm actually not so optimistic that it will happen. I think it's a placeholder. I don't think that the Japanese side really knows yet what will be possible, but I think they've judged—and I think they've judged correctly—that a year or two into this administration there is going to be a much more serious team looking for a way to get back to something like TPP. It was a political statement opposing TPP. It became a symbol of globalization and everything that Trump voters didn't like. It became a way for him to say his business experience tells him, "Do bilateral deals, never do multilateral deals." It became a kind of a totem or a symbol for what people didn't like about globalization in Washington.

But in reality it was never really understood by the critics. A bilateral FTA with Japan would focus—what do you do? Maybe you get a little faster opening of the agricultural market in Japan. The Japanese are going to come back and say, "Fine, we want a faster opening of the auto market in the United States where we have tariffs on auto parts and light trucks which extend for decades under the current agreement." The Japanese will come back and say, "Fine, we want to shorten the timeline for opening," which the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) won't like and the president won't like.

I see a bilateral FTA as not as cordial generally, but kind of trench warfare over old issues, whereas probably 90 percent of TPP was about other issues, like state-owned enterprises and rules for intellectual property rights, which were aimed at China, where the United States and Japan were on the same side. I think a bilateral FTA is kind of accommodating the president's current position, but not something the Japanese are particularly enthusiastic about, or that gets to any greater economic benefit—let alone rule-making, where it doesn't get you any benefit.

So it could happen. It could be that ultimately, to save face, there is a series of bilateral FTAs that then connect and lock into TPP. But that would be for purely political reasons. There is no really strong economic negotiating or strategic reason to do a bilateral FTA at this point; there might have been 15 years ago, but not anymore.

DEVIN STEWART: Could we see something more advanced, like a bilateral TPP—in other words, not just a tariff-focused agreement, but something that looks more like standard-setting and economic cooperation? 

MICHAEL GREEN: Sure, you could do that. You don't really need to because it's already in TPP. But you could do that—maybe tweak it, make it a little better. Then you could simultaneously, while you are negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), do that with Canada and Mexico, because Canada and Mexico are looking at TPP as a template for our renegotiation of NAFTA. Then you could include Korea, and do it with Australia and other TPP countries, and ultimately end up with maybe a slightly different version of TPP—but, frankly, having wasted years for political reasons getting back to that point.

But it may be politically that that's all the current president is willing to do and all the politics will bear. Although frankly, in public opinion polls a majority of Americans support TPP, and all the state governors support TPP. It is a peculiarity of the anti-establishment/anti-globalization scene in this election that TPP is on the chopping block. But if you add up interest groups, it's really only labor unions and some environmental groups that oppose TPP. There is far more support, if you look at the bits and pieces of interests among farmers and local government and manufacturers and so forth.

So there is a political basis to re-do TPP. It just has to be sold and packaged the right way.

DEVIN STEWART: Another security issue that came up during the U.S.-Japan meeting was the launch of the North Korean missile. How alarmed are you about that launch?

MICHAEL GREEN: It is disturbing because it's a solid-fuel missile, and that means the North Koreans don't have to put it on the launch pad and fuel it like a gasoline station, which means it's harder to find before it is launched. If you have dozens of these, it's a harder military problem to deal with. We could take them out, but it just requires a much faster response by the United States or South Korea and/or potentially someday Japan. Reportedly it went about 500 miles or so, but it may have a longer range when operational.

As a military threat it's a problem. It's not transformative, because we've already dealt with a growing missile threat and a nuclear weapons program. It doesn't transform the security picture in Northeast Asia. But it's just one more example of North Korea developing a capability that challenges us. In that sense it's disturbing.

I would say coupled with the assassination—or apparent assassination—of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, it's disturbing in terms of intentions, not just capability. I interpret—not really knowing; no one ever really knows—Kim Jong-un's motive in killing his half-brother, which appears to have been the case, as some people say, court intrigue, and ensuring there's no possible successor to him. The Chinese basically protect Kim Jong-nam. I see it also in the context of this rapid increasing missile and nuclear test as a signal to China that North Korea is so brazen now that it would kill this person under China's protection.

It's a deterrent message also, as it is clear that the United States, Japan, and Korea, and eventually China, are going to put more sanctions and more pressure on North Korea. So the intentions of Kim Jong-un are as worrying as the capabilities.

Our missile defense capabilities are growing; our ability to track and take out these missiles is growing. It's not like we're passive in all of this. But the problem is just becoming much more complicated and the crisis timeline is getting shorter because of the North Korean capabilities.

DEVIN STEWART: Do we have any options to deal with North Korea's missile development, and what is the role for the U.S.-Japan relationship?

MICHAEL GREEN: We have to be very tightly lashed up with Japan and Korea. Frankly, the Abe statement and President Trump's brief statement about this were disappointing in the sense that neither mentioned solidarity with the Republic of Korea. If we don't have strong trilateral ties, it is going to induce complacency in Beijing because China would be quite happy to see Korea drift out of the U.S.-Japan orbit.

What we need to do is show China that, no, Korea is coming into the U.S.-Japan orbit, that our trilateral relationship is becoming a virtual alliance, and that China does not want, and that will do more to control North Korea, which they don't want to do because of the risk. The risk from a burgeoning NATO-type political security arrangement against North Korea and Asia is problematic enough and will get more out of the Chinese. So we have to do that. I think more sanctions, and also a more aggressive interdiction, or intercepts, of North Korean transfers of chemicals and materials for their programs will be necessary.

I also think we have to put on the table and start thinking about options that are more kinetic, including shooting down these missiles using Aegis, U.S. and Japanese missile defense capabilities; or even preemptively taking their missiles out, although that's much more problematic, because though it is unlikely North Korea will respond militarily, an actual war on the peninsula would be devastating. It would be terminal for North Korea, or at least for the regime, but it would be devastating for Japan and Korea.

So there are not a lot of good options, but I think these kinetic options are going to come on the table more.

DEVIN STEWART: What about the role of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)?

MICHAEL GREEN: THAAD is basically a U.S. system to defend U.S. troops in our new, consolidated base in the southern part of the peninsula against North Korea's growing ballistic missile threat and nuclear capability because THAAD will take those missiles out in space before they can hit the base. It is absolutely essential to protect our forces and the South Koreans, but also to demonstrate that we're not intimidated, and that if North Korea tries to shoot at our base, there's a very good chance we'll take that missile out and then retaliate. It changes the calculation for North Korea in ways that are really important right now.

I think the South Korean government will keep that, in spite of enormous Chinese pressure, and in spite of the fact that we may end up with a more progressive or left-leaning candidate. But even then, the two leading candidates on the left are not strongly opposed to THAAD, so I think it will be a necessary and sustainable part of how we deal with the North Korean threat.

DEVIN STEWART: Mike, you worked in the National Security Council (NSC) under Bush. Given General Flynn's recent departure from the NSC, what do you make of the current state of Trump's National Security Council; what's going on? [Editor's note: This interview was recorded before Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster was named national security advisor.]

MICHAEL GREEN: I was surprised only by how quickly he was forced to resign. Most people who have worked at senior levels of previous Republican and Democratic National Security Councils—privately and some not-so-privately—expected General Flynn to resign at some point.

He is a respected tactical expert on fusing intelligence and strikes on terrorist leadership, and really superb in that job. But in his previous job at the Defense Intelligence Agency he showed very little aptitude for the complex geostrategic issues that come across the desk of a national security advisor, and his relationship with Russia was always a ticking time bomb.

Ronald Reagan had almost a new national security advisor every year. It was quite tumultuous at the beginning, but ultimately he ended up with people like Colin Powell, who ran a very tight ship. I don't know how many national security advisors Donald Trump will go through. Hopefully the next one will stick.

I do think there are some very good people on the NSC staff. They are all associated with General Flynn, which means they all come out of military intelligence, which means they have a deep, but rather narrow, view on issues and regions. There are some exceptions that are very good. One would be Matt Pottinger, who is a retired Marine—Marine intelligence—a young guy, who speaks fluent Mandarin, and has proven to be quite good, and the allies trust him. People like that I hope will stay. But I would expect that a lot of the, frankly, less-respected majors, colonels, that Flynn brought in from his own narrow orbit will move out.

That is probably good, because when I ran the NSC Asia office, I tried to have a mix of academics, like Victor Cha, and diplomats and military officers and intelligence officers. You want that mix because you're dealing with a whole inter-agency, and you're taking issues to the president, or to the National Security Council, that are never single issues; there is always an economic or a security or an intel or a defense component to almost everything.

This staff was not diverse at all; it was very heavily military. They will want a more diverse staff with perhaps some academics and diplomats. That, I think, hopefully, the next person will do, although the candidates they're talking about are all three- and four-star admirals and generals. But that, I think, that is a necessary change in the NSC staff, with the exceptions of some really excellent performers so far, like Mr. Pottinger.

DEVIN STEWART: Mike, just given the regional risks that you see happening in Asia, do you have any final advice for the Trump administration?

MICHAEL GREEN: The pollster for Donald Trump reportedly told him the day before the election that he had a 20 percent chance of winning. So this is possibly the least prepared administration in modern history. They did no policy papers; they had no personnel menu.

I've worked on presidential campaigns before. For example, I worked for Jeb Bush's campaign as the head of Asia in his time. He had all of his policy position papers, at least in draft form, ready to go, as did Rubio and others. In previous campaigns, Romney and McCain I worked on, they had all their candidates for the top jobs quietly lined up in September-October before the election.

Donald Trump's team still doesn't have a deputy secretary of state or defense, let alone all the many important jobs under that. They are basically figuring out their strategy by accident, by careening into problems, and then wiser heads are prevailing. Abe's summit was an example of wiser heads prevailing and a good outcome.

But the executive order, the statement that "We won't support the One-China policy," and other things—that is really showing an administration that doesn't have a coherent foreign policy strategy. It has a very intense and popular anti-establishment theme, and a plan to break the Republican establishment, but that's not a way to govern, and it's not way to run foreign policy.

This is going to be a work in progress. I don't think the direction of the state will change, but I think there's going to be a lot of crashing into light posts and bouncing off of cars for the next year or two down this highway as this basically unprepared administration starts to bring in very good people, hopefully, like Mattis and Tillerson and Juster and others, and just starts getting its bearings and its ability to drive the car of state.

My advice would be—I signed one of the letters criticizing Trump; I don't expect to, or want to go into the administration—however, they've got to start looking for experienced people, and maybe even from both parties, to start putting in place people who can run these agencies and run off our policy. They can still have political control in the White House, political appointees, but you can't have a revolution and expect to have a coherent foreign policy at the same time.

DEVIN STEWART: That's great advice. Michael Green, from CSIS and Georgetown University in Washington, DC, thank you for talking to us.

MICHAEL GREEN: Thank you, Devin. Good talking to you.

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