As the Democratic Party gears up to officially nominate Hillary Clinton as its candidate in November’s U.S. presidential election, Japanese officials are wondering which of the two hopefuls — her or Donald Trump — are more likely to get along, both on a personal and professional level, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
While people in the government are still trying to size up Trump, a real estate tycoon, they feel more comfortable with Clinton who, as a former secretary of state, is familiar with the complicated dynamics of Japanese politics and Asia as a whole.
Japanese officials are taking a wait-and-see attitude about Trump since they aren’t sure how much of the radical remarks he has been making regarding Japan and Asia will actually become his foreign policy.
As Trump is a businessman with no background in diplomacy, Japanese diplomats, along with other foreign delegates, are trying to get acquainted with his foreign policy team, they said.
During her tenure at the State Department, meanwhile, Clinton made Tokyo happy when she picked Japan as the first country to visit after being appointed. Clinton apparently witnessed how her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, solicited Japanese business when he served as Arkansas governor.
She also has numerous Japan experts as her foreign policy advisers, including Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, whom Japanese officials know well.
However, Tokyo is also worried that Clinton, as a prominent advocate for women’s rights, has been critical of right-leaning Abe over the “comfort women” issue.
But that impression seems to have faded with last December’s bilateral agreement between Japan and South Korea to settle the issue regarding the young women who were forced to provide sex at Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
Abe also made a good impression on Washington after his administration rammed through the state secrecy law and the package of security legislation that enables Japan to aid its allies in case of an attack, in the process becoming a more reliable U.S. ally.
Clinton is likely to be proactive in pulling the two countries together as allies, and intervene more in Asia, particularly on issues involving China, said James Schoff, a former senior adviser for East Asia policy at the U.S. Defense Department.
In her 2011 foreign policy article, “America’s Pacific Century,” Clinton fleshed out the pivot — or rebalance — to Asia strategy, saying the U.S. “will need to accelerate efforts to pivot to new global realities,” and that “the Asia-Pacific represents such a real 21st century opportunity for us.” She demonstrated her commitment to the region by making an extensive trip to Asia.
“As the secretary of state, she played an important role of turning up the intensity of diplomatic activities to generate more multilateral pushing back among Asian nations to call out what China was doing and indicate this is not Philippine-China problem,” said Schoff, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment.
Her tough stance on the South China Sea issue was already prominent before this article.
“While the United States does not take sides on the competing territorial disputes over land features in the South China Sea, we believe claimants should pursue their territorial claims and accompanying rights to maritime space in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Clinton said at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in 2010. She also said that any claim in the South China Sea should be consistent with international law.
This is good news for Japan, which wants to take a strong stance on the South China Sea as China flexes its military muscle in the region.
When the Permanent Court of Arbitration, sitting in The Hague, ruled in favor of the Philippines over the South China Sea territorial dispute between Beijing and Manila earlier this month, the U.S. said the verdict should be considered final and binding.
Japan also supports the court decision and has been orchestrating a tacit international campaign against China.
As the host country of this year’s Group of Seven summit, held in Mie Prefecture in late May, Japan tried to raise awareness among non-Asian countries about the region’s territorial disputes, and the G-7 foreign ministers adopted a statement on maritime security.
For Tokyo, the South China Sea issue is a litmus test on how Beijing will react on the disputed Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea.
Yet Yuki Tatsumi, a senior associate of the East Asia Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said Clinton might want Japan to be even more engaged when it comes to regional security in Asia.
“Japan touted its security legislation with fanfare and engaged the U.S. in revising the guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation, saying that Japan will be able to do a variety of things. The U.S. would expect more from Japan,” said Tatsumi.
That could include the South China Sea issues.
Alarmed by a China which has been building its dominance in the South China Sea, the U.S. has conducted so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. Japan, which has no direct stakes in the far-off waters, has given patrol ships to countries like the Philippines and has been heavily involved in the capacity-building efforts in neighboring nations.
In April, a Maritime Self-Defense Force flotilla of three vessels arrived at Subic Bay in the Philippines. Among the three was the first Japanese submarine to make a port call in the country in 15 years — which unnerved China.
But both Tokyo and Manila denied the sub’s visit had anything to do with China’s saber-rattling and territorial aspirations in the area.
Tatsumi said Washington is likely to expect more from Tokyo in terms of the South China Sea issue.
“The U.S. hopes countries such as Japan will join in any freedom of navigation operations if possible,” he said.