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U.S. President Donald Trump, left, speaks next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo Monday.   © AP

Trump, Abe to pursue India-Pacific link as China looks on

Partners to work with India, Australia; delicate diplomacy needed for Beijing

TOKYO -- The U.S. and Japan have agreed to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region, inviting India and Australia to also join the challenge. But the partners face the delicate task of not becoming a simple alliance against China.

Trump and Abe, appearing in a joint press conference Monday, stressed the importance of their strategy. Preserving freedom of the seas is "critical to the peace and prosperity" of the Indo-Pacific region, Abe said, adding that Japan and the U.S. "will play a leading role" in doing so.

"We're going to work to straighten a lot of things out, including trade, including military problems," said Trump. "We have a lot of things to work on."

The leaders agreed on a three-pronged strategy of spreading fundamental values, pursuing economic prosperity and safeguarding peace and stability, according to the Japanese side. The plan involves bringing in nations that share basic values of free trade and democracy, including Australia and India as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Abe in 2016 first advocated a free and open Indo-Pacific region. America's declining presence in the region is behind Washington's decision to join the effort at this moment.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact was intended to let Japan and the U.S. take the lead in writing the region's rules of commerce, but Trump withdrew the U.S. from the treaty immediately after taking office. Washington is responding to Beijing's military buildup in the South China Sea via "freedom of navigation" operations, but it has not come out with a systematic strategy for involvement in Asia in economic and other arenas.

The U.S. and Japan are increasingly apprehensive about China's rise, but they are taking extra care in maintaining an appropriate distance from Beijing. Tokyo made the point of issuing an official statement that the initiative "is not targeted at any specific country."

Japan has reason to avoid casting the move as an attempt to encircle China. Beijing's ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure initiative reaches all the way across Asia, for one thing. ASEAN is also deeply tied to China in economic and security terms, and does not see it as an adversary. Australia also shares vital economic links with China. India is involved in a border dispute with its giant neighbor, and is going to extra lengths to maintain a delicate balance.

The challenge for Japan and the U.S. is to counter Chinese moves that disrupt the maritime order or rules in the South China Sea while seeking a path for economic coexistence.


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