In geopolitics, geography is the root of all forgiveness. Or at least that’s perhaps the lesson being taught by Japan’s quiet resurgence across Asia. On Saturday, roughly 50 Japanese troops stormed a beach in the Philippines as part of a joint exercise with their U.S. and Philippine counterparts. The drill marked the first time that Japanese armed military vehicles were used on foreign soil since the end of World War II. The Philippines, of course, was one of the countries that Japan occupied during the war. Japan has been deepening defense ties across Southeast Asia and beyond; just in the past few weeks, it publicly dispatched a submarine for the first time to the South China Sea, conducted joint drills with the British and the U.S. in the Indian Ocean, and made the latest in a series of warship visits to Sri Lanka. Its growing attention to South and Southeast Asia has provoked very little of the sort of hand-wringing that attempts by China to engage in a similar fashion tend to do. This is, in part, because countries feel Japan has been appropriately contrite about its war-time behavior in the years since. But that explanation is insufficient. Just look to Northeast Asia, where Japan’s rise poses a much more direct threat and thus where forgiveness for past sins has been much slower coming. On Friday, for example, Japan withdrew from a multinational fleet review in South Korea after Seoul – a member of the U.S. alliance structure with Japan – objected to the fact that Japanese warships still fly the imperial-era Rising Sun flag. The fact of the matter is Seoul, like Pyongyang and Beijing, has much more reason to be concerned about Japan’s rise than states farther afield, because, among other reasons, Japan’s geographic position gives it the potential to cut off the maritime trade on which South Korea and China (and potentially one day the North) depend. Thus, seemingly little issues like Japanese war flags or war shrines routinely become big issues in China and the two Koreas.

The U.S. is starting to build a trade coalition against China. On Friday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the U.S. intends to add “poison pill” clauses targeted primarily at China to future trade agreements with third parties. Ross was referring to a clause in the recently updated NAFTA (the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) that allows countries to pull out within six months if any of the three enters a trade deal with a “non-market country.” Functionally, this may give the U.S. a sort of veto over any attempt by Canada or Mexico to tighten trade ties with countries the U.S. is at odds with. (Read: China.) Both Canada and Mexico have dismissed the idea that the clause is an infringement on their sovereignty. But the fact remains that they are choosing the U.S. over China here. And they have ample reason to do so – primarily because of their overwhelming economic dependence on the U.S. but also because they share some of Washington’s concerns about competition from China. This dynamic is undoubtedly setting off alarm bells in Beijing. Its biggest hope for weathering the trade war unscathed has been that the U.S. would focus primarily on reshoring lost manufacturing jobs, forcing the U.S. to take on dozens of countries at once, not to mention the automation that has been the main source of job losses in the U.S. In that kind of trade war, China would have more room to maneuver and common interest with other countries in the U.S. crosshairs. But the U.S. is quietly abandoning its reshoring aims – neither the new NAFTA nor the recently updated free trade agreement with South Korea will do much to bring U.S. jobs back home, for example – while seeing a viable path forward to containing Beijing. We’re watching the U.S. trade negotiations with Japan and the EU for further signs of this shift in emphasis.

Honorable Mentions

  • The Trump administration is reportedly considering a number of temporary waivers for countries like India that are reluctant to quickly cut off imports of Iranian oil.
  • Chinese oil product exports to North Korea in August rose to their highest levels since October, according to U.N. figures.
  • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he may step down if health issues that have forced him to miss a number of recent public events turn out to be serious.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Tokyo for talks on North Korea ahead of his visit to Pyongyang on Sunday.
  • North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, along with her Chinese counterpart, are visiting Moscow.
  • Fighting erupted between Turkey-backed rebels and jihadist rebels in Idlib on Friday.