Japan’s resigned embrace of Donald Trump

Tokyo has a good chance of persuading Trump that security co-operation with Japan is in his interests, but the end of TPP is a serious blow.  

Seventy-five per cent of Japan’s population would have voted for Hillary Clinton. Yet this did not prevent Prime Minister Abe from rushing to New York City to be the first world leader to greet President-elect Donald Trump. Unlike European leaders who would have faced domestic disapproval had they embarked on such a journey, the Japanese Prime Minister expected to score points by demonstrating his ability to work pragmatically with the new president, regardless of the positions he took during the campaign. After the meeting, Prime Minister Abe declared he was confident a “relationship of trust” could be built.

Japanese experts view Donald Trump as a businessman who needs to be persuaded that he has a good deal. And they are mindful that the stakes are high for Japan. The alliance with the US is the cornerstone of Japan’s foreign and security policy. Trump’s campaign declarations not only raised eyebrows, they generated deep unease regarding his commitment to the regional architecture that has ensured Japan’s prosperity and security after its defeat in the Pacific War.

But Japan has a number of reasons to persuade itself that Trump did not really mean it and will be constrained by conservative Republicans committed to defending the security order in East Asia. First, mainstream Republicans are joining the team. General Flynn, Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, like many Republicans, has ties with prominent Japanese.

Second, many Japanese experts believe that they have a clear case with which to convince Trump  that the US actually enjoys a very good deal that ensures its position as an Asian great power, noting that Japan covers 75% of the costs of hosting US troops stationed in Japan. And many in the strategic community advocate more “proactive contributions to peace” to further deepen security cooperation with the United States.

Third, some of Trump’s Asia advisers advocate a robust defense posture in Asia, which suggest that the new administration’s foreign policy may fall in the “Jacksonian” category – isolationistic in the sense of aiming to insulate US territory and nationals from threats, but more than ready to respond militarily to rivals when challenged. The mainstream bet in Tokyo is that the Trump administration will not seek accommodative deals with China and North Korea, but rather stand its ground in East Asia.

At the same time, the “Trump shock” is closely connected to the ongoing Japanese reflection on the accumulation of challenges undermining the liberal international order. Trump’s lack of interest in values is in this regard highly problematic, as Japan’s national security interests are closely related to the defense of liberal democracies from the threat of authoritarian states. Japan’s diplomatic narrative – which stresses rules, norms and international law – may fall on deaf ears if the US favors unilateral action again.

In any case, while Japan seeks to reassure itself on its military alliance with the United States, it knows it stands to lose much on the economic front. Japan was a leading advocate of reinforcing a trade architecture based on high standards – and on the exclusion of China to slow its rise to domination in Asia. Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is therefore a significant loss for Japan. And as in other countries, be they friends or rivals of the United States, the awareness that the US risks becoming an unpredictable international actor is unnerving and will generate preventive adjustments.

As a result, Japan has an even stronger incentive to conclude a high standards free trade agreement with the European Union and to seek deeper relations with like-minded states in Europe. To hedge against the possibility of a United States becoming weaker and increasingly isolationist, the Abe administration will continue to diversify its international presence and security partners, as well as accelerate its national defence reforms to rely more on its own strengths. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Deputy Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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