Shinzo Abe’s government may be many things to critics — hawkish, authoritarian, reform reverse — but killers? That’s how Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump described the prime minister’s team in an August speech.
At the time, it was Caroline Kennedy’s turn to get slapped around by the presidential wannabe. Among Trump’s gripes with the respected U.S. ambassador to Japan was her being “wined and dined by Abe and all these killers. Wined and dined!”
Trump could perhaps claim he was referring to Abe’s negotiating prowess, but it was lost in translation for many of Japan’s startled 126 million citizens. Such bluster and ignorance heaped at a key ally demonstrates why Asia is so unnerved by the prospect of a President Trump and why he’s unfit to lead.
Trump’s China views are vapid enough. There are plenty of reasons to hit Beijing: human rights; government-sponsored hacking; intellectual-property theft; rampant pollution; an epic land grab in the South China Sea.
But his often-stated line that China is “stealing” U.S. jobs ignores that companies willingly send them there and bargain-hunting consumers encourage them to ship even more eastward. Trump, after all, is free to manufacture his “Make America Great Again” merchandise in America. Or boycott that assembled-in-China iPhone he uses to bash China around the clock.
Japan, too, these days. Trump now regularly adds Japan to his “they’re-killing-us!” tirades against China and Mexico. YouTube enthusiasts are even writing parody songs about the Republican front-runner’s axis of evil trading nations.
The problem for diplomats is who do they call to correct the lunacy pouring out of The Donald’s mouth? Who on Trump’s staff does Tokyo confer with when he vastly exaggerates America’s trade deficit with Japan, says Japan buys “practically nothing” from the United States, complains that machinery giant Komatsu is imperiling Caterpillar or states companies are moving factories to Japan?
A quick call to Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Nike’s Mark Parker, Boeing’s Dennis Muilenburg or any Hollywood executive would set Trump straight. But then, Trump doesn’t do facts — he’s all gut feelings. Too bad his gut on Japan is stuck in the 1980s, back when Michael Crichton was penning “Rising Sun” and six out of 10 best-sellers focused on Japan ruling the world.
Were Trump to take a refresher course, he’d see Japanese car companies make loads of stuff in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and elsewhere. As of 2014, they employed almost 1.4 million U.S. workers, contributing more than $85 billion annually of compensation.
Trump forgets Japan invests more than $1 trillion of its savings in Treasuries, lowering U.S. borrowing costs (so does China). Good luck bullying America’s bankers in Asia.
Abe’s immediate worry is the fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Trump wants to renegotiate. But the bigger concern should be the fights Trump will surely pick not just with Beijing, but solid U.S. allies.
Trump complains, for instance, that the U.S. protects Japan for free. Just for your information, Mr. Trump, Japanese taxpayers pay almost $2 billion annually to host some 50,000 U.S. troops and military staff. Tokyo sent troops to Iraq as part of the America’s 2003 invasion force.
Abe, meanwhile, is working furiously to change the Constitution so Japan can aid Washington in the many, many wars Trump seems keen to start. Abe sees weapons sales as a boom industry and he’s actively courting the military-industrial complex Trump wants to make great again.
Nor does South Korea get the free ride Trump claims on the nearly 30,000 U.S. troops stationed there (Seoul pays almost $900 million per year). The U.S. isn’t doing 50 million South Koreans a favor — it’s containing Pyongyang and China, just as Washington neoconservatives want. A big U.S. troop presence protects vital shipping lanes for the U.S. and reduces the odds of Tokyo and Seoul going nuclear. Truth is, the Washington-Tokyo alliance was always meant to be inequitable.
Trump also tends to go where no modern U.S. leader should — like holding up World War II Japanese internment camps as a model for rounding up Muslims. Not great optics in a region that’s home to the four nations with the biggest Muslim populations, including India. Indonesian lawmakers are buzzing about trade restrictions if Trump is elected, as voters sign online petitions to bar him and his businesses from the fourth most-populous nation. Trump Hotels is building a six-star monstrosity in Bali.
Where might he go next, rhetorically? It speaks to the absurdity of our times that the sharpest insights come from comedians. HBO’s Bill Maher said it all recently when he asked: “What happens the first week in office when Trump tweets that Angela Merkel is a fat pig? Because that’s not a joke — he’s going to do something like that.”
Trump, who seems little more aware of the mechanics of geopolitics than Sarah Palin, almost certainly will. Imagine Beijing’s reaction to sleep-deprived Trump tweets about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hair — or North Korea at digs at supreme leader Kim Jong Un.
A potential bubble in offensive comments worries the foreign policy establishment. Trump’s “insistence that close allies such as Japan must pay vast sums for protection is the sentiment of a racketeer, not the leader of alliances that have served us so well since World War II,” former Cabinet members and security experts, including Robert Zoellick and Michael Chertoff, wrote in an open letter.
Or as economists Tobias Harris and Jeffrey Hornung of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation put it: “Maybe Mr. Trump’s Japan bashing makes for good sound bites, but it is unjustified by the facts, and if realized, it would do little more than disrupt a critical U.S. relationship in a critical region at a critical moment. U.S. leadership cannot be about getting the best possible deal for Americans at the expense of beggaring American allies and partners; it has to be about creating the conditions in which all can be secure and prosper. Only that will ensure that America is great.”
Instead, Trump seems ready to emulate Asia’s strongmen. Press freedom is a pillar of any open society. Journalists being corralled, roughed up and detained at Trump events is the stuff of Xi’s China and Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Malaysia, not America. Trump even wants to “open up our libel laws” to stop reporters from writing negative stories, Singapore-style.
Trumpmania is also a moment for Japan to internalize why the real-estate mogul finds it so easy to troll Abe. Try as he may to finesse the yen’s 30 percent drop, Abe’s devaluation policies open his government to valid criticism. President Barack Obama’s team has looked the other way, figuring the ends — a Japanese revival — justify the means. But Trump conflating Beijing and Tokyo as fellow currency manipulators who must be stopped is a wake-up call for Abe.
Nothing would make Japan great again faster than a rebound that adds more to global growth than Japan is perceived to be subtracting. Abe has gone more for low-hanging fruit and spin rather than hard work to restore Japan’s clout. He’d be wise to get on with the structural reforms he’s been pledging for three-plus years now. That would go a long way to removing Japan from China’s economic orbit — in Trump’s mind, at least — and narrowing its U.S. trade deficit.
Trump has some internalizing to do, too. Sure, Japan is a tough trade competitor. But Trump’s contention that Japan is winning versus the U.S. is news to a nation that hasn’t had a decent raise in 25 years. Yes, Abe should be doing more to increase household demand, which in turn would boost U.S. growth.
Arguing Japan is the same thorn in Washington’s side in 2016 it was in 1986, though, betrays a startling level of ignorance toward a vital friend. Tokyo is absolutely right to worry a Trump White House would add insult to injury — early and often.
William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia, writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. Based in Tokyo, he has more than 20 years of reporting experience in the U.S. and Asia. His journalism awards include the 2010 Society of American Business Editors and Writers prize for commentary. www.barronsasia.com