The Japanese Prime Minister was quick off the blocks securing the first meeting of a foreign leader with President-elect Trump. In the first of a series looking at Trump’s relations with Asia’s major powers, Stephen Nagy looks at whether this meeting bodes well for the future of US-Japan relations.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit last week to meet President-elect Trump was both unprecedented and an important indicator of the direction of US foreign policy with regards to Japan and East Asia under the new administration. At the same time, Abe being the first foreign leader to meet Trump should allay some of Tokyo’s fears that pre-election rhetoric would become post-election policy.
From Tokyo’s perspective, this meeting and all future meetings will be about clarifying the importance of the US-Japan security partnership and how it has underpinned peace, prosperity, and security in East Asia in the post-World War II era, and equally, how it remains pivotal to not only Japan’s security but also the security, peace, and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific in the century to come.
In articulating the salience of the US-Japan alliance, Abe needs to continually stress that relations between the two nations go far beyond a one-dimensional military alliance. Tokyo will highlight the multidimensional character of their relationship, which includes an economic partnership and being important and synergistic players in international institutions such as the UN, World Bank and IMF among others. Last but not least, Abe will be sure to stress that Japan is the reliable and indispensable partner for the US in the Indo-Pacific.
Being the first foreign leader to meet President-elect Trump coupled with the fact that Trump’s advisors, such as Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro, subscribe to the mantra of “peace through strength” are strong indicators that the Japan-US alliance will remain core to the US’ East Asian strategic vision. Advocating an East Asian policy that stresses the strengthening of the US’ military presence in the region, the rebuilding and expansion of the US Navy, ending defence sequestration while at the same time supporting value diplomacy, such as support for democracy in Taiwan, suggest that rather than retrenchment and isolationism when it comes to East Asia, we should expect a more committed approach to countering China in the South China Sea. This will be unwelcome news in Beijing as many were expecting strategic opportunities and more favourable foreign policy conditions under a Trump Presidency based on statements made in the lead up to election day.
Tokyo would support this approach, which while not without risk, would help secure what it perceives as its core interests, namely free and unobstructed access to the South China Sea through which much of its imports, exports, natural and energy resources are transported.
Additionally, a US more committed to the region and cooperation with Japan and Southeast and South Asian countries such as India and Vietnam, decrease the prospect of unilateral action by China and the possible disruption of trade corridors in the South China Sea that by some estimates exceed US$5 trillion. This is a germane point, with global economic growth centred in the Asia-Pacific (and in the future the Indo-Pacific), both Tokyo and Trump’s foreign policy advisors understand that not only their national economies are at risk if a conflict emerges in the South China Sea but so is global economic growth.
To that avail, the future of US-Japan relations will continue to deepen but also broaden under a Trump Presidency. With so many aligning interests in the realms of security, economy and regional and global leadership, we should expect Japan to expand the scope and number of cooperative security activities with the United States while firmly abiding by Article 9, its September 2015 security law which stresses multilateral security cooperation and its stance on being nuclear weapons free. Joint patrols and surveillance in the South China Sea will expand and the number of partners will increase as well. At the same time, Japan will continue to engage in a dual hedging strategy by pursuing nimble but less committed strategic security partnerships with India, Vietnam, Australia and other willing partners.
Japan’s expanded role and diversification of security partnerships are in line with Trump’s calls during the campaign for allies to step up to the plate and shoulder a larger security burden in East Asia. Increased burden sharing is also consistent with longer-term trends in the US-Japan security partnership in which Washington has demanded Japan play a larger role because of the US’ declining ability to sustain the East Asian security architecture, both financially, and in military capacity.
Trade and economy will also be central to Abe’s agenda with Trump going forward. The importance of the widely lauded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), or a resurrected version of it, will be also be part of the ongoing Japan-US dialogue. For Abe, the TPP represented a commitment to domestic reform in order to revamp and revitalise the Japanese economy, but it was also part of a broader trade and security strategy to secure Japan’s national interests in the region. It’s first tier trade rules, size and geographic scope increase the number of stakeholders in the South China Sea and as a consequence the number of countries with security interests in a region of the world that Tokyo considers a core interest.
The pre-election rhetoric in the US left policymakers in Tokyo and ordinary citizens feeling very insecure about the future of Japan-US relations under a Trump Presidency. While understandable, the alignment of long-term economic, political and security interests between Tokyo and Washington should give us confidence that Japan-US relations will ultimately be driven by strategic considerations rather than personality politics.