Author: Fumiaki Kubo, University of Tokyo
Japan was stunned and scared on 9 November 2016 to find that Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States.
During the campaign, Trump had expressed a very different view of Japan from those of his predecessors. He argued that the current Japan–US Security Treaty was unfair because the United States alone was obliged to defend Japan. Trump urged Japan to take charge of its own defence, including arming itself with nuclear weapons.
Worse, the isolationist US candidate’s victory happened precisely when Japan faced its most serious national security crisis since the end of World War II — a turning point in its own defence Policy.
China had been challenging control and sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands since 2008. This threat became more serious and more constant in 2010. Japan had never experienced a situation like this in the post war period — another country threatening to take by force territory it believes to be Japanese.
Apart from Trump’s campaign rhetoric on Japan, there were three signs in the election cycle of the direction in which US politics might be heading.
First, Trump was the first nominee of a major US political party since World War II to have neither political nor military experience. This indicates the strength of voter anger and distrust towards today’s career politicians and governing elite.
Second, as far as his promises and remarks during the campaign were concerned, Trump was the Republican Party’s first isolationist nominee since before World War II.
Third, both Trump and Hillary Clinton took protectionist stances — another post war first — and opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership to which Japan had given its support.
Trump captured the Republican nomination by taking a different position from former nominees on major issues. His strong rhetoric on illegal immigrants was one such difference from his predecessors, including John McCain and George W Bush. His isolationist utterances have made him a rarity among Republican presidential hopefuls.
More ominous for US allies, Trump has proven that there is a path to party nomination on these policy lines. What if there is another candidate with similar policy views on illegal immigrants, trade and foreign policy in 2020, 2024 or 2028 — one with a more intellectually developed position and with a better command of policy details?
The mere contemplation of these possibilities makes Japan concerned about its future.
Post-election, the challenges for Japan were twofold: to deal with President Trump, with all his unpredictability; and to prepare quietly for the future direction of US foreign policy.
The Japanese prime minister’s office had succeeded in establishing a back channel with the Trump campaign which allowed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to secure an informal meeting with Trump as early as 17 November. This was followed by the official summit between the two leaders in February.
Of vital importance to Japan, President Trump officially committed to defending the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Overturning that commitment would have thrown the Japan–US alliance into a major crisis and shaken the foundations of all America’s alliance relationships. Sooner or later, China would have ramped up its provocations around the islands.
Abe’s meeting with Trump was a rare, clear-cut success for Japan’s diplomacy. Tokyo got almost everything it wanted, including the commitment to US military support in the event of an armed attack against Japan.
Yet public unease remains about Trump’s Japan policy approach. The president’s unpredictable decision making and the lack of clearly defined policy goals, principles and values remain sources of deep anxiety.
Some Japanese would welcome the withdrawal of US troops from Japan. Others might take this as a justification for developing nuclear weapons. At this moment, however, these are distinctly minority views and would not — and should not — be embraced by the government or the broader public.
The point of departure in considering Japan’s security policy for the immediate future will be assessing the degree of threat posed to Japan, and determining whether Japan can and should deal with this alone, or choose an alliance policy.
There are arguably issues that Japan needs to tackle on its own, such as boosting defence spending. In January, the Institute for International Policy Studies, a major Japanese think tank, issued a set of recommendations to the government in preparation for its dealings with the Trump administration. One was that Japan should spend at least 1.2 per cent of GDP on defence. Maintaining and strengthening Japan’s alliance with America in addition to increasing defence spending would bolster the country’s security further.
On 30 March, the governing Liberal Democratic Party’s Research Commission on Security proposed that Japan acquire the ability to launch counter-strikes at enemy bases in self-defence. The proposal is part of a larger effort to boost the nation’s missile defences.
While there are enormous political barriers if these proposals are to be realised, there is certainly financial and political potential for Japan to be more active. If there is a strong cabinet with a clear foreign policy vision and strong enough electoral support, as the Abe administration commanded in 2012–16, Japan could better prepare for the future in this increasingly unpredictable security environment.
Fumiaki Kubo is A Barton Hepburn Professor of American Government and History at the Graduate Schools for Law and Politics, University of Tokyo.