Will the US-Japan alliance endure under a Trump presidency?

Will the US-Japan alliance endure under a Trump presidency?

US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have developed a seemingly close relationship, in what may be described as the first international “bromance” of Trump’s presidency. On the surface, all appears well between the US and Japan. However, the two countries remain far apart, especially on matters related to trade and security. Japan may need to assert itself more aggressively, if trade in the Asia-Pacific is to remain free and open.

The beginnings of an Abe-Trump “bromance”?

Standing on the world stage next to his American counterpart, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must feel like the lone adult. US President Donald Trump, always prone to a sudden outburst and typically expressed as 140 characters, prefers a game of golf to a deep dive on trade policy.

Trump has had an uncanny knack for distilling complex policy prescriptions into four-letter hashtags (#MAGA). Shinzo obviously got the message. Trump’s recent 12-day trip around Asia included a stop in Tokyo where the Japanese Prime Minister presented the American president with his very own white hat bearing a familiar riff: “Donald & Shinzo Make Alliance Even Greater”.

During Trump’s campaign for president, his staff developed a theory: Trump wears a white hat when he’s in a good mood; red means “stay away”. Tellingly, Abe’s gift came in only one color.

Sensing a schism, Shinzo Abe wasted no time in getting US-Japan relations off to a good start. Notably, Abe was the first foreign dignitary to visit the President-elect in the US. Since then, Trump and Abe have enjoyed many games of golf together. Much to Abe’s chagrin, however, Trump has yet to relax his isolationist rhetoric. On his Asia tour, Trump told US and Japanese business leaders that trade between the US and Japan is neither fair nor open. The “bromance,” it would seem, has its complications.

More worrisome from a Japanese standpoint is that Trump’s administration has yet to develop a cohesive Asia-Pacific regional strategy. A rudderless American foreign policy is concerning to Japan for two main reasons. The first is that Japan relies heavily on the US security blanket to defend its borders. And the second is that global trade, especially inter-Asia trade flows to which Japan is a willing participant, is highly dependent on a rules-based system. Moving forward, Japan may find itself trading places with the US (at least temporarily) as chief advocate of the liberal democratic order to which the Asia-Pacific region owes much of its success.

A nuclear north and contested waters

At times, Tokyo seems more alarmed than Seoul by the projectiles flying out of North Korea. Perhaps this is not without warrant. In 2017 alone, North Korea logged 13 tests of missiles capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kilograms and traveling a distance of at least 300 kilometers. Several of these missiles crossed over the main islands of Japan, sending people ducking for shelter. On 28 November, North Korea conducted its latest test this time suggesting that it had finally attained the ability to strike the entire continental United States.

Japan is particularly exposed to North Korea’s arsenal. Unlike South Korea, Japan cannot depend on a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (“THAAD”) system to defend its territory from a missile barrage. Instead, Japan’s Self Defense Forces (“SDF”) coordinate with the US Navy to detect and ultimately deter threats by relying on a network of Aegis-equipped ships stationed throughout the Sea of Japan. Among the security community, this is viewed as less reliable than THAAD.

At the same time, Japan is engaged with China in a territorial tit-for-tat over the Senkaku (referred to as “Diaoyu” in China) island chain. No more than a series of uninhabited volcanic rock formations, the contested Senkaku nevertheless represent a critical outpost in the eyes of Japanese and Chinese military planners. The Chinese send their “little blue men” to support their dubious assertion of the “Nine-Dash Line” while Japan doubles down with its own maritime patrols (“JMSDF”). An internal Chinese Navy magazine confirmed Japan’s worst suspicions when it indicated that it was engaged in a strategic land grab under the cloak of “civilian activities” and that a military flare-up in the South China Sea is “highly likely”.

A permanent occupying force?

Due to a combination of internal politics and the legacy of past wars, Japan has for a long time relied on American capabilities. The US has just shy of 40,000 troops stationed in Japan, the bulk of which are based in or around the Nansei Islands chain, or more specifically the Okinawa Prefecture. Since the end of World War II, the US has maintained a substantial military presence in Japan including permanent bases and forward deployment of ground, naval and air troops.

Following a conflict that left the Japanese people deeply scarred by atomic warfare, the US and its military advisors helped re-constitute the Japanese government. Today, that legacy is enshrined in the country’s constitution, which according to Article 9, renounces war and the maintenance of “war potential”.

Japan is now wrestling with that legacy. To some of the more conservative Japanese voices, the country is forever living in the shadow of its unelected US overseers. Over the years, there have been several attempts to amend the Japanese constitution. Only now, however, does the prospect of reform seem attainable. Following an election in October 2017, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (“LDP”) secured enough seats to protect its 2/3 majority. Abe seized the results as a fresh mandate.

The LDP would like to strip out the language that prevents the government from more aggressively militarizing. Arguably, the Japanese government has already transgressed its own constitution by ending a ban on deployment of troops overseas. However, even for the most ambitious Japanese reformers, the road ahead is fraught with challenges. Any constitutional change will require a 2/3 majority in both houses of government in addition to convincing the public in a general referendum.

What seems more likely is that Japan will continue to lean on the American security apparatus that is enmeshed in Japan’s governing system. This will involve both defending its borders against hostile states and promoting freedom of navigation in the East China Sea. This is not to suggest that Japanese internal politics are immune to anti-Americanism. Residents in Okinawa frequently decry their American “occupiers”. Yet in the face of an increasingly bellicose North Korea and a newly emboldened China, Japan is in no hurry to kick the Americans out.

TPP: Take two

Like a second-string quarterback thrown into a tie game in the fourth quarter, Japan is quickly learning to shoulder a heavier burden in the Asia-Pacific, although this is not by design. When President Trump torpedoed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“TPP”), a massive trade agreement involving 12 countries that would have accounted for roughly 40% of the world’s economic output, Japan was understandably deflated.

Nevertheless, the remaining 11 countries picked up the pieces and are now working to pass some version of the original agreement. In the absence of US leadership, Japan has emerged as the chief negotiator for “TPP-11” or TPP-lite. Importantly, Japan has expressed its intent to leave the backdoor open should the US return to the table.

Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) called Trump’s withdrawal “the greatest self-inflicted wound on American regional influence since the Vietnam War.” The significance of Trump’s reneging on the TPP was perhaps best captured by then-President Obama’s campaign to win ratification. In a State of the Union speech in January 2016, President Obama said “with TPP, China does not set the rules in [the Asia-Pacific]; we do.” Trump likes to call “hooey” on international norms, but at least with TPP the US was marked as present. More importantly, as a party to TPP, the US was attuned to the process and in many ways able to frame the debate.

Japan appreciates the importance of maintaining an effective counterweight to the rise of China. In fact, this was how TPP was originally packaged as the deal never included China as a party. For example, TPP would have included supervision of intellectual property rights in addition to enhanced labor and environmental standards. China, always wary of foreign interference in its internal affairs, would rather play by its own rules. Japan’s determination (in addition to other countries) to see the TPP through is a testament to the region’s resilience in the face of Chinese expansionism.

Outlook: Japan-US alliance will endure despite Trump      

While it’s somewhat premature to draw conclusions about the US-Japan alliance, three themes have emerged thus far during the Trump era. In its current state, the strategic alliance is melded by at least six decades of cooperative experience having spanned multiple administrations of both US political parties. At the same time, the US has maintained a considerable military presence in and around Japan since the close of World War II.

For Japanese leaders, this has created a sort of co-dependency on the US. Japan wants to become a self-sufficient military power but recognizes the limitations of its internal politics. Instead, Japan has exploited US military capabilities to bolster its own security defenses, while pursuing a carefully calibrated incremental build-up of its SDF. Even if Abe’s constitutional reform effort fails, the US security blanket remains a comfortable fallback option.

Secondly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reluctantly assumed the mantle of economic leadership in the Asia-Pacific. Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP was a psychological blow to the alliance and to the region in general. Both the US and Japan expended significant political capital in fighting for certain protections or exclusions in the final document. However, Abe has demonstrated strong resolve by continuing to participate in negotiations with the remaining 11 countries. Abe’s commitment to ensuring a flexible document under TPP-11 also bodes well for future US administrations.

Finally, under Abe’s leadership, Japan may become a more assertive voice when defending the liberal international order. Undergirded by 70 years of American leadership, the Asia-Pacific has reaped massive gains. China lifted close to 1 billion people out of extreme poverty. South Korea was transformed from a resource-poor, low-income nation to one of the world’s most advanced economies. For a period of time, Japan flourished and inspired just as much enthusiasm as China does today. Much of this can be attributed to a system steeped in the liberal model of free and open trade (backed up by hulking US naval ships, of course).

In sum, much of East Asia has benefitted handsomely from the rules-based system implemented after the Second World War. With its commitment to democratic values and its economic linkages to the global supply chain, Japan is the natural step-son of the American liberal order. President Trump may dislike trade deficits, but “trust deficits” are equally if not more destructive. In defending free trade in the Asia-Pacific, it now rests in Japan’s hands to maintain the region’s trust.

About Author

Steven Spinello

​Steven A. Spinello is based in New York City. He currently works as a Senior Analyst for EY. Steven holds a B.A. in economics from the University of Maryland. His primary writing interests include global finance, ​trade, ​maritime security​, ​and interstate relations especially at it relates ​to the US, ​Latin America and Asia.​