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TOKYO -- The U.S. and Japan are showing greater support for Chinese-led projects they once shunned, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a sudden change that betrays the governments' underlying motives.|
Matthew Pottinger, the U.S. National Security Council's senior director for Asian affairs, appeared at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held this month in Beijing. A Japanese delegation also attended the forum, which Chinese President Xi Jinping talked up as China's biggest government event of the year.
American firms "are ready to participate in Belt and Road projects," Pottinger said, adding that they "can offer the best-value goods and services required over the life of a project."
From hamburgers to carrots
Washington took a dimmer view of the initiative under previous President Barack Obama, seeing it as a rival framework to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement led by the U.S. and Japan. The Obama administration also opted to stay out of the AIIB, which provides financial banking for Belt and Road projects. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government took the same stance.
But policy has changed under Obama's successor Donald Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the TPP. Washington decided to send a delegation to the Belt and Road Forum shortly before the event.
Pottinger, who led the group, once served as a China correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, during which time he got detained and assaulted by Chinese authorities for his reporting. He later left the newspaper to join the U.S. military, serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The administration's decision to send Pottinger, a known China critic, to the forum does not come as a complete surprise. When Xi and Trump first met in early April, the Chinese leader eagerly invited the U.S. to participate in the Belt and Road Forum. Trump later complimented Xi, saying "he is a very good man, and I got to know him very well."
This represents a sharp about-face from Trump's tone in the 2016 campaign, when he once castigated Obama for holding a state dinner for Xi. "I would not be throwing him a dinner," he declared. "I'd get him a McDonald's hamburger."
The sudden praise probably owes to a promise by the Chinese president to ratchet up pressure on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs.
Cautiously following suit
This U.S.-China thaw put Japan on edge. Tokyo took note of the role of Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and close adviser, in the lead-up to the China-U.S. summit. While the White House is full of China hawks, Kushner is more sympathetic, and Beijing apparently seized on this opening.
Progress toward a summit accelerated rapidly after State Councilor Yang Jiechi, China's top diplomat, met with the lower-ranking Kushner during a U.S. visit in late February. Rumors swirled in Washington that Beijing, noting that Kushner ran his family's real estate business before his move into politics, dangled a proposal to win his favor.
The Trump administration's shift probably factored into Japan's change of heart on the Belt and Road Forum. The Abe government, which initially had no intention of participating, suddenly decided to send a delegation including Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. And Nikai delivered a personal letter from Abe that included language praising the Belt and Road Initiative when he met Xi on May 16.
Washington and Tokyo seem to be signaling greater acceptance of the AIIB in hopes that better relations with China will encourage it to address the North Korea issue. Pyongyang conducted its eighth ballistic missile test this year on Sunday, and there are few signs that Beijing has tried particularly hard to restrain its neighbor.
That said, the U.S. and Japan are unlikely to go so far as to join the Chinese-led bank. Any major deals with China by the Trump administration will need to consider the views of such figures as Defense Secretary James Mattis. Coming from the military, which positions Beijing as a threat, Mattis is basically hawkish on China. Anti-China sentiment runs deep in Congress as well.
AIIB membership is generally opposed in Japan, where the concern is that cozying up to China could alienate India. Tokyo is strengthening economic and military partnerships with New Delhi, whose relationship with Beijing is strained. Japan is treading carefully with an eye on both the U.S. and India, wary of a potential backlash from New Delhi or a risky China deal by Trump in his pursuit of American interests.