Donald Trump’s view of Asia is stuck in the past. This is as problematic for Shinzo Abe as it is for Xi Jinping


APRIL 21, 2018

Michael Crichton’s 1992 novel Rising Sun about Japan ruling the global economy was one of the all-time “missed-the-moment” moments.

By the time it hit bookstores, Japan’s 1980s bubble had already imploded. By 1993, when Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes were starring in the big-screen version, deflation had descended over Tokyo and the government began a multi-decade cycle of huge stimulus jolts and bank bailouts. Japan’s economic sun was more of the setting kind.

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Japan’s Shinzo Abe could be excused for feeling as if he’s been transported back to the days Crichton explored. Rising Sun, after all, almost perfectly captures Donald Trump’s view not just of Abe’s Japan, but also Xi Jinping’s China. In word, deed and unconscious gesture, Trump betrays his belief that America is waging a commercial war against shadowy Asian business moguls playing by their own rules and stopping at nothing to control the global economy.

Abe could brush up on Trump’s worldview by watching the 1986 film “Gung Ho.” The Ron Howard-directed comedy about a Japanese auto company that buys a US factory – and all the lost-in-translation hijinks in between – also aptly captures Trump’s stuck-in-the-80s take on Asian competition.

“The US is experiencing a revival of Japan syndrome,” says Steve LeVine of Washington news website Axios. It’s one harking back three decades to, “when ‘Made in Japan’ abruptly stopped being a source of mirth, Americans began to snap up Toyotas and Nissans in big numbers, and Detroit sank into a profit-and-jobs bloodbath.”

These days, of course, the Asian peril preoccupying President Trump involves China. Not just mainland manufacturing, but the technology threat emanating from the globe’s second-biggest economy. In a new report, LeVine quotes says Gregory Allen, an artificial-intelligence expert at the Center for a New American Security. Five years ago, Allen points out, American technologists sneered at China’s Baidu and its new search engine. “They aren’t laughing anymore,” Allen says. “Now they are marveling at Baidu’s advances in artificial intelligence.”

Trump isn’t completely wrong. Just as Japan conquered cars, China has the capacity to lead the world in tech. First with Xi’s ambitious “Made in China 2025” scheme. Of that, LeVine said, “Not only would [China] have the most advanced versions of these technologies, but it would effectively block off its market for competition in these leading sectors.”

The trouble with Trump’s aggressive approach – tariffs, bluster and crazed tweets – is that it ensures Washington and Beijing will bump heads more than co-exist. Rather than cooperate, the so-called Group of Two will be at constant loggerheads – worse than America versus Japan in the 1980s or 1990s. Another risk: own goals. The White House can only slap down so many bids like that of telecom giant ZTE Corp. before destroying its free-market bona fides.

Even so, we’ve seen this movie before, and those lessons were on clear display in Florida this week. Abe didn’t return home from Mar-a-Lago with anything to distract from the scandals imperiling his premiership.

One involves accusations of cronyism. As many times as Abe denies any role in the sale of public land at an 86% discount to a school operator with ties to his wife, Akie, the more doubts deepen. Another is an apparent military coverup of reports concerning deployments in Iraq.

But the biggest controversy may be Abe’s enthusiastic embrace of a Trump White House acting against Tokyo’s interests. From trade tariffs to a weaker dollar to pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to leaving Abe out of the loop on North Korea, Abe’s Trump bet is blowing up on Japan. At Mar-a-Lago, Trump and Abe seemed further apart than ever. Trump hit Japan both on Twitter and at a press conference.

Speaking of movies, the in-flight film on Abe’s trip from Tokyo to Florida was “Darkest Hour,” which dramatized Winston Churchill’s wartime struggles. Abe could be excused for wondering if the title refers to his own tenuous hold on power. Of if the plot is a metaphor for Tokyo’s challenges with Beijing, Pyongyang or even a Trump Show stuck in the 1980s.

Whatever happens between Abe and Trump from here, no one should bet on a happy ending.

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