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Tokyo

Two key tests of President Donald Trump’s strategy for engaging with the international community intersect here.

The Japanese are heavily invested in the outcome of the president’s decision to sit down this spring with North Korean President Kim Jung Un to discuss an end to the regime’s nuclear ambitions.

And they’re also deeply worried Trump’s America First approach to trade will shrink the influence of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, giving China an opening and limiting the ability of the U.S. to apply economic pressure on North Korea should the upcoming summit fail.

“The U.S. has supported peace, prosperity and democratization in this region for 70 years,” a senior Japanese government official told me last week, during a visit arranged by the Japan Press Center. “Now it should reap the fruits of that prosperity.”

But the American withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, a free trading pact between the U.S., Japan and 10 other nations, followed by Trump’s recent tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, signals, “economic nationalism is overwhelming the White House,” says Dr. Yorizumi Watanabe, a professor at Keio University in Tokyo.

“The United States’ movement is toward protectionism, and the cause of free trade is being weakened.”

It’s not enough for the U.S. to have a strong military presence in the region, which it does. Nearly 40,000 American troops are stationed in Japan, and the Seventh Fleet has 30 vessels in the surrounding seas.

It is also assisting Japan with an elaborate missile defense shield.

American military force must be supported by vigorous economic activity to assure stability. Presenting a strong and united front with Japan and other Pacific Rim allies on both levels is essential to countering the rising threat from a nuclear North Korea.

The Japanese were caught off guard by what they characterized as Trump’s impulsive acceptance of Kim’s invitation to a face-to-face summit in May.

Most believe the meeting is premature and that economic sanctions on North Korea should be given more time to bite. They’re also concerned the tumult in the Trump administration, including the recent departure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, leaves the White House without the deep bench of experts it should have before engaging North Korea.

But the Japanese are resigned to the meeting, and their focus now is on assuring Trump doesn’t make matters worse.

They’re counting on a sit-down in Washington next month between the American president and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is said to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the North Koreans.

Trump and Abe have a close relationship, and the American president apparently values the counsel of his Japanese counterpart.

Abe’s position is that sanctions must remain in place until Kim demonstrates concrete and verifiable movement toward totally eradicating his nuclear program.

He will remind Trump the North Koreans have twice before, in 1994 and 2005, promised to forsake their nukes in exchange for financial aid, only to violate those pacts as soon as the pressure eased.

“When talking about North Korea, we have to be careful,” said Dr. Matake Kamiya, a professor at the National Defense Academy. “Things may seem to be moving when they’re not. This may be a major development, but it’s too early to tell.”

The experts in Japan don’t believe Kim is ready to abandon the progress he’s achieved over the past year in developing the capability to reach the United States with a missile. They caution against unwarranted optimism for the summit.

“Still, it’s a positive step,” said Dr. Narushige Michista of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “By engaging directly with Kim, we will be able to understand his objectives, his personal motives.

“So far, the only ones from the West who have had direct contact with him are a chef he hired from Japan and Dennis Rodman,” the former Detroit Piston who has a curious friendship with the dictator.

The best outcome of the summit, the Japanese say, is that Trump will wrest an iron-clad commitment from Kim to denuclearize, though few think that’s likely.

The worst is that Trump, too eager to make a deal, will repeat the mistakes of past presidents and fall for insincere promises.

That would give Kim more time to complete his nuclear program and possibly force South Korea to break away from Japan and the United States to engage unilaterally with North Korea.

Despite Kim’s provocative test missile launches, often aimed in the direction of Japan, and his rapid progress toward a deliverable warhead, the experts I spoke with see him as a rational actor, and not the madman he’s portrayed as in the West.

They don’t think he’ll push the button.

But nuclear weapons would give him considerable leverage in the region and perhaps the ability to force South Korea into an unfavorable reunification pact.

There are also fears a nuclear armed North Korea will act with its patron China as a coercive force in the region. Countering that would require a more robust U.S. presence.

All the more reason to recognize free trade can be a powerful defensive weapon in a region that would prefer to take its lead from the United States.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

Catch The Nolan Finley Show weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.

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