OSAKA – The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president threw a potential bombshell into diplomatic, political and military relations all over the globe. His subsequent unpredictable interventions have raised the basic question in every capital in the world: Can we trust this guy?
This is especially so for Japan, for which the U.S. alliance has been the foundation of its security and diplomatic policy since the war. Trump’s mercurial unpredictability raises the hitherto unthinkable question — if Japan cannot rely on Trump’s U.S., should it develop its own nuclear weapons?
The president-elect’s lack of foreign policy experience, except as business deal-maker building his eponymous empire, is one concern; more worrying is his tendency to shoot his mouth off with a rambling instant opinion, and then later to deny he said it.
Specifically on Japan and nuclear weapons, he told Chris Wallace of Fox News in April: “So, North Korea has nukes. Japan has a problem with that. I mean, they have a big problem with that. Maybe they would in fact be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea.” Wallace intervened: “With nukes?” he asked. “Including with nukes, yes, including with nukes,” Trump replied.
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked whether Trump was ready to let Japan and South Korea become nuclear powers. He responded: “I am prepared to — if they’re not going to take care of us properly, we cannot afford to be the military and the police for the world.”
But in October Trump called Hillary Clinton “a liar” when she accused him of suggesting that Japan should get nuclear weapons to defend itself.
Supporters claimed that when he was elected, Trump would calm down and become, well, presidential. In the hour of victory, he was magnanimous, talking of the need to bind the wounds of a divided America.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to pay court at the golden Trump Tower. Afterwards, Abe said, according to the official translation: “In any case, our alliance will not function without trust. I came away convinced that President-elect Trump is a leader who can be trusted.” In Japanese, Abe was more nuanced. Noticeably, the ever-voluble Trump did not tweet Abe’s praises back.
Trump then used YouTube to announce his plans for his first 100 days, promising that on day one he would tear up the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. This was a kick in the teeth for Abe, who backed the TPP as a keystone to boost Japan’s economic reforms.
The TPP was President Barack Obama’s plan to allow the United States, rather than China, to set the rules of global trade. Rightly criticized for pandering to big corporations, it promised the U.S. estimated annual gains of $57 billion to $131 billion.
Trump resumed his tweets to pronounce policies and announce his Cabinet of billionaires, multimillionaires, retired generals and people dedicated to remove restrictions on education, energy, environment and labor protection, all far removed from blue-collar Middle America, which voted him to power. His logic is that they are all successful deal-makers who will lend their knowledge and expertise to do great deals to make America great again, in his view.
Most challenging is the Trumpeting in a China shop, with the president-elect happy to shatter diplomatic protocols. The carefully planned “congratulatory” telephone call from Tsai Ing-wen, whom Trump termed “the president of Taiwan,” was only a first step. China’s outraged nationalist Global Times urged that China should settle the question of one China by invading and seizing Taiwan.
But perhaps it is not China that should be worried — since Trump surely has a great deal for Beijing. He has good family business reasons: His buildings benefited from cheap Chinese steel in their construction, and many of daughter Ivanka’s fashion goods are made in China.
Instead, Taiwan, along with Japan, and Estonia, Ukraine and Germany, among others, should be trembling at the prospect of Trump’s volcanic eruption on the world. Some respected commentators predict that Trump’s passion for deal-making, starting with his soulmate Russian President Vladimir Putin and going on to Putin’s new chum Chinese President Xi Jinping, will produce a new triumvirate to rule the world, the U.S., Russia and China (though triumvirates have historically come unstuck because of squabbling among greedy partners).
Trump’s determination to remake America’s world leaves Japan vulnerable. He complained that the U.S. is paying to protect Japan, forgetting that since Tokyo pays most of the bills. America is getting cheap forward bases for any military engagement in Asia. That may not matter if Trump no longer wants America to play world policeman.
Without the U.S. alliance, Japan lacks friends in dangerous waters. News that China has placed military anti-aircraft and anti-missiles systems on all of the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea adds to unease that Beijing is determined to control all the seas within its “nine-dash line.” Long-standing Southeast Asian friends of the U.S., notably the Philippines and Malaysia, have begun to lean toward China, recognizing the power of the economic and political winds.
Most defense analysts believe that Japan could give China a bloody nose in any immediate conflict, but China’s increases in military spending are threatening Japan’s qualitative and quantitative edge. Some analysts suggest that Japan should double spending on the Self-Defense Forces to 2 percent of GDP, which would catapult Japan to the world’s third-biggest military spender — though still only half of China’s spending.
Doubts whether Japan’s already constrained budget could tolerate such an increase are fueling dark debate about a cheaper option of going nuclear. It has not reached the public sphere because of deep distrust even of civilian nuclear power.
Japan noticeably refused to support the recent U.N. resolution calling for outlawing of nuclear weapons, and has sufficient plutonium to make thousands of weapons. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told Xi this year that Japan could make nuclear weapons “virtually overnight.” Six months would be a realistic estimate.
Japan is dancing with the devil in thinking of an arms race or the nuclear option to make up for lack of Trump’s support. Memories of firebombed Tokyo, as well as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, should be revived. War rarely solves anything, as can be seen in the United Nations’ description of Aleppo as a “complete meltdown of humanity” achieved by Syrian and Russian bombing, on which compulsive tweeter Trump has been silent.
The destructive power of today’s weapons is terrible; and the nuclear option can only lead to nuclear winter and the death of planet Earth. Japan’s role — on behalf of all humanity — as the first nuclear victim, should be to pioneer innovative peaceful ways to settle disputes and make friendships with its neighbors. Losing the umbrella of U.S. protection makes the task more pressing.
Sadly, Abe is a problematic leader for such a quest because of his ultra-reverence for his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, one of Japan’s war leaders, who taught him politics. Abe has to make a giant leap in imagination to go from the mid-20th century of Kishi to respond to the international demands of the 21st and even 22nd century, if Japan and mankind are to survive that long.
Kevin Rafferty is a journalist specializing in Asia and a former professor at Osaka University.