As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stepped closer to claiming their parties’ presidential nominations on Wednesday, Japanese experts and policymakers are beginning to pay close attention to the U.S. election.
They said the choice of the next American commander in chief is important for Japan, given the overlap of security and economic interests.
On Super Tuesday, the biggest date in the primaries, Clinton won seven of 11 states and Trump did at least as well, as the front-runners padded their leads in the all-important delegate counts that determine the parties’ nominees.
To be sure, Japanese matters often do not carry much weight on the presidential campaign trail, where candidates focus more on domestic issues such as the economy. Yet recent comments by both Trump and Clinton have unnerved some experts.
Trump in December questioned the current framework of the Japan-U.S. alliance. The billionaire said the relationship is unfair because if Japan is attacked, the U.S. would “have to immediately go and start World War III. If (the U.S.) gets attacked, Japan does not have to help us.”
While it is unclear how Trump views the security situation in East Asia, his comments on Japan are “worrisome,” said Toshihiro Nakayama, professor of American Politics and Foreign Policy at Keio University.
Nakayama said Clinton’s stance toward Asia is more reassuring. As secretary of state, she was a strong advocate for a U.S. “rebalance” to Asia that emphasizes the importance of the Asia-Pacific. Moreover, she called the U.S.-Japan alliance the “cornerstone” of America’s regional engagement.
Yet both candidates say they oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. Clinton once supported TPP, but following its approval — and the launch of her bid for votes — she reversed course, saying cannot support it “at this time.”
Trump has called TPP a bad trade framework. He has also accused Japan of not buying U.S. beef and wheat and of poaching jobs from Americans.
A high-ranking official at the Foreign Ministry said it is worrisome that both candidates are negative on TPP. Even though both Japan and the U.S. have denied it, the pact is widely seen as a mechanism to counter China.
“If both candidates are looking backward in the trade deal, how can the United States exert political leadership in the region?” said the official.
He added that a leadership vacuum could result in another party stepping in and laying down a new set of rules. The official stopped short of naming the country that might.
Washington and Tokyo have overcome difficult times in the past. The relationship survived so-called Japan-bashing in the 1970s and 1980s amid trade friction, and even Japan-passing, a perceived slighting when former President Bill Clinton chose not to stop over en route to China.
Some experts also fear Japan is not a priority in Washington because the White House lacks Japan hands.
Nakayama of Keio University said Tokyo has to find a path forward that keeps ties on an even keel.
“Whoever becomes president, Japan has to get along with the U.S.,” said Nakayama. “But Japan could face a very difficult situation it has never yet experienced.”
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