Late last year I spent some time with a former chief of China’s military intelligence, a bruiser with an ax to grind against the United States. Halfway through a long tirade about America’s alleged abuse of its global power, he interrupted himself and said: “There’s one thing we appreciate about America, though. You keep the Japanese away from us.”
Some Asian countries abhor American power, some like it, and some live with it reluctantly. But they all have one thing in common: They trust the United States of America more than they trust each other. There’s no regional balance-of-power arrangement that could replace America as a strategic buffer.
That’s why Donald Trump’s April 29 suggestion that Japan and South Korea should acquire nuclear weapons was the craziest single statement on foreign policy of any major American presidential candidate since the Second World War. “You have so many countries already — China, Pakistan, you have so many countries, Russia — you have so many countries right now that have them,” said Trump. “Now, wouldn’t you rather, in a certain sense, have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?”
Trump’s April 29 foreign policy address made some good points, or rather points that would have been good if they had been in a different speech by a different candidate. But the core of the speech was Trump’s narcissistic claim that he would negotiate a “great deal” for the United States with its Russian and Chinese rivals. You don’t start negotiations by pouring gasoline around the conference table and flicking a cigarette lighter. Trump can’t un-ring that bell. Any negotiations he were to undertake in Asia would be a disaster.
The Japanese and South Koreans were horrified, with good reason. As CNN reported, “So high was the level of concern, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe felt the need to respond publicly, saying, ‘whoever will become the next president of the United States, the Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy.’ Japan remains the only country to have had nuclear weapons used against it and has had a non-nuclear policy and pacifist constitution since the end of World War II. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida added, ‘It is impossible that Japan will arm itself with nuclear weapons.'”
Trump doesn’t read books, except the ghostwritten tomes that have appeared under his name, and probably doesn’t know that that the Japanese army killed about 25 million Chinese during the Second World War, the vast majority of them civilians. The scale of Japanese atrocities makes the mind reel, and China remains traumatized by the memory. Japan has never acknowledged the scale of its wartime misdeeds, unlike Germany. Japan and China fear each other and take extraordinary measures to keep provocation below the threshold of danger. As Kyle Mizokami wrote in The National Interest:
It is perhaps China’s greatest nightmare: a nuclear-armed Japan. Permanently anchored off the Asian mainland, bristling with nuclear weapons, a nuclear Japan would make China’s security situation much more complex than it is now, and force China to revise both its nuclear doctrine and increase its nuclear arsenal. To be perfectly clear, Japan has no intention of building nuclear weapons. In fact, it has a strong aversion to nukes, having been the only country to actually be on the receiving end of a nuclear strike on its cities. Japan’s strategic situation would have to grow very dire for it to undertake such a drastic and expensive option. At the same time, China has no interest in provoking Japan into building them. China’s nuclear “no first use” policy is in part aimed at reassuring Japan that, unless it were attacked first with nuclear weapons, it will not use them in wartime.
China grudgingly respects the United States for acting as a superpower in East Asia. By keeping Japan under the American strategic umbrella, Washington in effect told China that it did not have to prepare for war with Japan. Trump has now told China to prepare for a nuclear-armed Japan.
Trump understands nothing about China. “China respects strength and by letting them take advantage of us economically, which they are doing like never before, we have lost all of their respect,” he said on April 29. The merits of this claim are beside the point (China’s real effective exchange rate has risen by 40% since 2009, not fallen as Trump alleged). China’s first three priorities are security, security, and security. Its economy comes far down the list. If China believes that it faces an existential threat by the adversary that devastated it between 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria, and 1945, when America won the Pacific war, it will make any sacrifice it thinks necessary in order to prevail.
China has invested massively in its strategic forces, including carrier-killer surface-to-ship missiles, satellite-killer missiles, ultra-quiet diesel electric submarines, a new generation of ICBM’s, as well as cyber war capabilities. Trump presumably would threaten to restrict Chinese exports; China would respond by massively shifting resources to its military sector. America’s interest lies in persuading China that it can feel security within its borders without projecting power in such a way as to destabilize the region around it, as it threatens to do by constructing artificial islands for military use in the South China Sea. The worst possible thing would be to introduce the wild card of a Japanese nuclear threat into the discussion.
Beijing will never believe that Trump is merely a blithering, blathering ignoramus. In China’s imperial system, every public statement is weighed carefully, for words cannot be retracted. The Chinese will remember that Trump proposed to put nuclear weapons into the hands of the Japanese and treat him as a dangerous enemy. And the consequences for Asian and American security will be dire.