The United States' exit strategy over settling the North Korean crisis after increasing pressure on the secluded state still remains unclear following talks between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump in Tokyo.
At a summit meeting on Nov. 6 and a joint news conference that followed, Abe and Trump declared to the world that the two countries will put the maximum pressure on Pyongyang in an effort to compel the country to abandon developing nuclear weapons and missiles. The two leaders also announced that Tokyo and Washington will work to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. Despite these claims, the Trump administration's policy toward Asia is still ambiguous.
"Over the two-day period, I had in-depth discussions with Donald. We attached overwhelming importance to the North Korean issue during our talks," Abe told the news conference.
In a speech he delivered at a banquet at the state guesthouse in the Motoakasaka district of Minato Ward in Japan's capital, Trump said he talked with Abe only about their work even while playing golf on Nov. 5.
A source close to the Japanese government said, "The two leaders initially talked about golf but their talks developed into serious discussions," adding that they devoted much of their time to discussing the North Korean issue.
Abe and Trump achieved their summit's goal of issuing a message that they will put the maximum pressure on the North in an effort to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program. However, the two leaders have not clarified specifically how they will respond to North Korea.
Prime Minister Abe told the news conference that "now is not the time for dialogue." Meanwhile, President Trump tweeted last month that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was "wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man," a reference to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Nevertheless, Trump told a U.S. media interview filmed shortly before visiting Japan that he was prepared to meet with Kim at some point while calling such a one-to-one conversation "far too early."
Many Japanese government insiders are of the view that the Trump government's policy toward North Korea is ambiguous. The president's remarks and tweets are often contradictory with his government's policy.
One source close to the Japanese government pointed out that Trump's true intensions are "harder to understand than those of Kim."
Concerns persist within the Japanese government that the United States may suddenly begin dialogue with North Korea over Japan's head.
At the Nov. 6 news conference, President Trump declined to directly reply to questions about the possibility that the U.S. will choose a military option against North Korea. Trump has suggested all possible options including an armed attack without clarifying what constitutes "a red line" in an apparent bid to increase pressure on Pyongyang. However, such an attitude has further obscured the Trump administration's policy toward the North.
When asked about Japan's missile defense system, Trump expressed hope that Japan will buy defense equipment from the United States. He suggested if Japan does so, it will create many jobs in his country while Japan obtains security, implying that he sees even national security as part of a business deal. Prime Minister Abe standing side-by-side with Trump listened to the president's reply with bland expressions.
The free and open Indo-Pacific strategy that the two countries have agreed to share is aimed at establishing order in a vast region including the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, in which democracy and rule of law are valued. Behind the strategy is the two countries' rivalry toward China that is rising militarily and economically.
President Trump, who has failed to hammer out a clear strategy toward Asia, joined the Indo-Pacific strategy that Prime Minister Abe has considered since during his first stint as prime minister for a year from 2006 to 2007.
Abe proposed the Indo-Pacific strategy at a meeting of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development held in Kenya in August 2016. The proposal was viewed as a move to counter the "One Belt, One Road" initiative that China launched in a bid to increase its influence on African countries.
Shortly after being sworn in, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade pact. He made the decision from the standpoint of protecting U.S. domestic industry. However, as the U.S. has abandoned the TPP, which is touted as a framework for democracy, free trade and the rule of law, the decision has raised concerns that Washington's influence in Asia would decline. The United States apparently chose to join the Indo-Pacific strategy for fear that if what The Washington Post calls a "power vacuum" in Asia remains unfilled, it could let China, which is seeking to establish new order, attain supremacy.
However, a high-ranking official within the White House repeatedly denied that the strategy is aimed at containing China. While regarding China's rise as a threat, the U.S. needs cooperation from Beijing in responding to the North, and Washington does not want to provoke Beijing before Trump's visit to the country from Nov. 8.
The Japanese government, which is also trying to improve Tokyo's ties with Beijing, openly explains that the Indo-Pacific strategy is not targeted at any specific country. At the same time, Tokyo aims to draw Washington into efforts to establish broad economic order in a bid to avoid holding bilateral trade talks with the Trump administration that is demanding that the U.S. trade deficit with Japan be reduced.
"Japan and the United States are determined to continue efforts to create fair and effective economic order in this region and powerfully lead growth in the world economy," Prime Minister Abe told the joint news conference, emphasizing that Tokyo and Washington will lead efforts to create trade and investment standards in the Asia-Pacific region.