National / Politics

Unknown quantity: How the outcome of the presidential election in November could affect Japan-U.S. relations

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

“Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?” — Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72”

One month from now, American voters will elect Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as the next president of the United States.

It is not a happy occasion. U.S. media polls have consistently shown the two candidates are among the most unpopular to ever run for the office.

In one corner is Clinton, consummate Washington insider, friend of Wall Street and a former secretary of state whose hawkish foreign policy views sometimes differ little from neo-conservatives who got the U.S. into the Iraq War. Clinton is disliked and distrusted by conservatives, progressives and large numbers of independent voters under the age of 45.

In the other corner sits Trump.

A year ago, American foreign policy experts and media, happily isolated from the rest of the country in their New York/Washington bubbles where support for Clinton and mainstream Republicans was high, confidently predicted Trump would flame out during the primaries. A number of governments in Europe were less sure, and began sounding out those who knew Trump and discussing what U.S. foreign policy might mean for their bilateral relationships with the United States if “The Donald” actually won the election.

The Japanese government was slower to take Trump seriously. It was not until March that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced he’d instructed the Foreign Ministry to look into Trump’s policies and find people who could reach out to him. By then, Trump was making headlines in Japan, opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty and criticizing the U.S.-Japan security treaty as being unfair because America was compelled to come to Japan’s aid if attacked, but Japan was under no obligation to help the U.S. if their roles were reversed. That the latter complaint was quite similar to messages that U.S. officials in Washington and New York had been delivering, albeit more quietly, tactfully and diplomatically, to Japan since the 1991 Gulf War was ignored in the expressions of outrage and disappointment from Japanese and U.S. commentators that followed.

Since Trump and Clinton officially won the Democratic and Republican primaries, the controversial TPP agreement has also become a hot issue involving U.S.-Japan relations. Both candidates oppose it, although in Clinton’s case, she’s surrounded by those who originally supported it. She herself advocated it, by one count, 45 times as secretary of state but now says it needs to be reworked (or renegotiated). Trump has been a more vocal critic of the agreement and it was he, not Clinton, who first made it a major campaign issue.

For politicians and policymakers in Tokyo and Washington, as well as other Asian nations, the TPP’s passage represents America’s larger commitment to a so-called “Asia rebalance,” a combination of an increased military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and tighter economic relations with Asian countries that is designed to counter Chinese overtures to those countries. Yet for many American opponents, the TPP is not about America’s Asian presence or an economic rivalry with Beijing. Rather, it represents an attack on U.S. sovereignty that could spark job losses or a power grab by corporate interests.

Beyond these single issues, it’s Trump’s general lack of “Asian policy experience,” partially meaning his lack of personal connections among influential bilateral policy experts — the “Japan hands” in Washington and New York, and “American hands” in Tokyo who tend to emphasize ever-closer economic and military relations — that has drawn much of the concerned commentary.

Such experts seriously doubt whether Trump or his administration would be competent enough to deal with a rising China, an unpredictable North Korea and a changing Southeast Asia. Who, exactly, would lead Trump’s Japan team in addressing these thorny issues is unknown, and that frightens people on both sides of the Pacific.

Trump’s Asian policy ‘bluster’

In August, more than half a dozen Washington foreign policy experts and former officials who have worked with Republican administrations and have strong ties to Japan published a highly critical letter, warning that America would lose all credibility in Asia if Trump became president.

“The current Republican presidential candidate offers only bluster or preposterous panaceas for Asia — ideas which, if they ever find their way into policy, will wreck our country’s credibility, economy and leadership in very short order,” the letter said.

“Should Trump become president and put his nostrums into practice, Asia’s response will be prompt and epochal. In their varying ways, Asia’s big or small countries will be forced to tilt towards America’s challengers, especially China. Some of them may move quickly to seek security under a new proliferation of nuclear weapons,” it added.

Such fears are shared by Japanese experts on American politics. Toshihiro Nakayama, a professor of American politics and foreign policy at Keio University, noted that, unlike past presidential elections, U.S.-Japan relations is something Trump is at least talking about.

“Not long ago, Japanese pundits were wondering if Japan would ever be discussed in a U.S. presidential campaign. I’m reminded of the old saying: ‘Be careful what you wish for,'” Nakayama said at a press briefing in early September.

If Trump becomes president, he added, those in Japan who always complain the country is too obedient toward the U.S. will raise their voices even louder, putting those who are pro-U.S. alliance in a difficult position.

“If Trump’s diplomacy is enacted in the manner he’s now stating, for Japan, the U.S. will not become a political threat, but it will become a political uncertainty. However, even under a President Trump, Japan would adhere to and advocate the U.S.-Japan alliance because there is no other option,” he said.

Hitoshi Tanaka, a former deputy minister for foreign affairs, writing in the July issue of East Asia Insights, warned that Trump’s rhetoric alone endangered the bilateral relationship.

“Even if Mr. Trump ultimately fails to win the U.S. presidency, the rhetoric of his campaign has already put U.S.-Japan relations at risk in several ways,” Tanaka wrote. “First, the question of the U.S. role in the world and how it positions itself geopolitically will be a critical issue for the incoming administration. Second, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric risks undermining confidence in the U.S. security guarantee to Japan. Third, Mr. Trump’s zero-sum, protectionist approach to trade erodes the credibility of U.S. economic leadership at a time when China is promoting its state-led capitalism development model.”

Learning to love Clinton

Status quo oriented American and Japanese policy experts, as well as many in the Japanese government, have long preferred more mainstream (as opposed to Tea Party-leaning) Republican presidential candidates to Democrats, whom they see as protectionist and antagonistic toward Japan on trade. Before they imploded in the primaries, Jeb Bush and then, later, Marco Rubio were praised in Japan for their “understanding” of the country.

Now, however, Japan’s political establishment, as well as Washington’s experts on Japan, feel they have no other option than to approach Clinton. Abe met her, but not Trump, in New York last month. Clinton’s experience as secretary of state is being played up, as is her past relationship with Japan (her first trip after assuming the post in 2009 was to Japan, and she made 61 trips to the Asia-Pacific in the position). That experienced Asia experts have also lined up behind her is interpreted as meaning there would be far less change (and chaos) in the bilateral relationship under a Clinton administration than under a Trump presidency.

That the Democratic Party platform on Japan and East Asia is essentially unchanged from previous administrations also eases the minds of many in Tokyo. The party promised to deepen relationships with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand and, in particular to honor America’s “historic commitment” to Japan, meaning the bilateral security treaty.

Furthermore, the Democrats signaled a tougher policy toward China and North Korea. Regardless of what that might actually mean in practice, it was music to the ears of the Japanese government.

“We will also work with our allies and partners to fortify regional institutions and norms as well protect freedom of the seas in the South China Sea. Democrats will push back against North Korean aggression and press China to play by the rules. We will stand up to Beijing on unfair trade practices, currency manipulation, censorship of the internet, piracy and cyberattacks,” the platform says.

One area of the bilateral relationship that is somewhat under the media radar but which Clinton would be expected to strongly support is further U.S.-Japan nuclear power cooperation. As secretary of state, Clinton discouraged former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda from pursuing a policy of getting out of nuclear power completely. According to a June report by the Foreign Ministry, nuclear power-related technology accounted for 22.2 percent of Japan’s $131.1 billion in exports to the U.S. in 2015, and U.S. imports to Japan of the same technology were about 10.4 percent of the $62.5 billion that same year.

But while welcoming Clinton’s remarks on the security alliance and regional security issues, and being especially appreciative of her defense of America’s alliance with Japan during the recent televised debate with Trump, it’s the fate of the TPP agreement that has Japanese officials and experts particularly worried about the future of U.S.-Japan relations.

TPP: The litmus test?

As Japan’s Diet debates ratifying the TPP, nervous pro-TPP politicians, bureaucrats, corporate leaders and media in both countries are wondering what will happen to it in the United States.

The U.S. Congress must still ratify it, but time is running out and a vote before Obama and a new Congress take office next year appears, as of early October, all but impossible. Not only Trump and Clinton are against it. Senior Republican leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan are unhappy with the final negotiated text and have said that they couldn’t see how Obama could muster the necessary votes to pass it during the lame duck session of Congress after the election. That has led to an increased number of pleas from Tokyo for America to ratify it.

“Japan and the U.S. must each obtain domestic approval of the TPP as soon as possible for its early entry into force,” Abe told an audience in New York last month. “Success or failure will sway the direction of the global free trade system and the strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific.”

In their Aug. 15 letter, the U.S. Asian experts called on Clinton to reconsider her opposition. The pro-TPP camp hopes she will not only change her mind if she’s president, but also overcome what could be substantial congressional opposition. That could be even more difficult if pro-TPP senators lose their re-election bids or if the new Congress demands the text be reopened for negotiation, a measure opposed by Japan.

“Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on a recent visit to the United States, put it succinctly: ‘For America’s friends and partners, ratifying the TPP is a litmus test of credibility and seriousness of purpose.’ Failure to approve it would cede to China the role of defining regional trade rules and would be a body blow to U.S. standing and the U.S. economy,” the letter said.

In certain quarters of the Japanese media, as well as among policy experts in New York, Washington and Tokyo, TPP opponents in the U.S. are sometimes stereotyped as isolationists: angry, working-class white males with limited skills, or as those who simply don’t understand either Asia or international politics and economics. Such attitudes overlook the reality that the TPP is opposed by broad, influential sections of the American public, including progressives and younger voters of all ages, education levels and ethnicities, many of whom turned out for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.

In addition, while opposition to the TPP from politically influential pork, beef and auto parts lobby groups gets media discussion in Japan, it’s a relatively underreported provision called the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism agreement in the TPP that concerns America’s top constitutional scholars and economists.

In a letter signed in early September by over 220 legal and economic experts from top U.S. universities, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law School professor who was Obama’s mentor, Congress was urged to reject the TPP treaty because of the ISDS regime.

“ISDS grants foreign corporations and investors a special legal privilege: the right to initiate dispute settlement proceedings against a government for actions that allegedly violate loosely defined investor rights to seek damages from taxpayers for the corporation’s lost profits,” the letter said. “Through ISDS, the federal government gives foreign investors, and foreign investors alone, the ability to bypass (America’s) robust, nuanced, and democratically responsive legal framework. This system undermines the important roles of our domestic and democratic institutions, threatens domestic sovereignty and weakens the rule of law.”

TPP opponents also point to studies indicating America’s economy will benefit little from the agreement. The U.S. International Trade Commission estimated that the TPP would boost U.S. imports by only 0.2 percent of gross domestic product by 2032. The Peterson Institute for International Economics says the TPP will boost U.S. national income by just 0.5 percent after 15 years.

What’s more, a World Bank report based on all aspects of the TPP estimates that, by 2030, the pact would boost Japan’s GDP by 2.7 percent, but only by 0.4 percent in the U.S. The report does not make it clear, however, when the World Bank’s calculations assume the TPP goes into force, so it’s unclear if the figures for Japan and the U.S. are the results over five, 10 or 15 years.

Strained relations ahead?

Opinion polls conducted in the U.S. and Japan of how each country views the other have yielded interesting results of late.

The Washington-based Pew Research Center’s Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey showed 61 percent of Japanese surveyed said the U.S. has declined in importance over the past decade. While 70 percent also said Americans were optimistic and 59 percent said they were tolerant, only 26 percent felt Americans were hardworking. Fifty percent of Japanese surveyed also saw Americans as arrogant, 45 percent said they were greedy and 43 percent said Americans were violent.

On the other hand, an opinion poll of America’s attitudes toward Japan conducted by Foreign Ministry for 2014 were more positive, showing that 90 percent of U.S. opinion leaders and 73 percent of the American public saw Japan as a dependable partner. The poll also revealed that 70 percent of opinion leaders and 67 percent of the American public saw cooperation between Japan and the U.S. as being excellent or good.

At the same time, however, only 35 percent of those surveyed felt that the Japanese and American people had a good or fair understanding of each other.

Of course, such surveys don’t tell the whole story — or even most of the story. However, the intensity of this year’s election has not only divided the United States. It has raised fundamental questions among Japanese and Americans who are concerned about the ugliness of this election and how it will affect bilateral relations on all levels, regardless of who emerges as president next month.

Coronavirus banner