WASHINGTON – With Donald Trump set to take office Jan. 20, Japan and other Asian countries are closely watching his stance on the region’s alliances, looking for reassurance on U.S. security commitments.
While Trump may request that Japan increase its share of the costs of stationing U.S. forces in the country, as he pledged during the election campaign, he and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are expected to affirm the importance of the Japan-U.S. relationship.
The two countries have agreed to “deepen and expand” their alliance, Abe adviser Katsuyuki Kawai said Friday in Washington after meeting with Michael Flynn, the incoming U.S. national security adviser.
Kawai and Flynn also said that Abe and Trump should meet as early as possible after Trump is sworn in, following recent news reports that Abe plans to visit Washington in late January for talks.
However, there are uncertainties in Japan about Trump’s commitment to the alliance, given his suggestion during the campaign that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Japan, South Korea and other allies if they do not pay more.
“We defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia … they do not pay us,” Trump said during a debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton last year. “We can’t defend Japan, a behemoth, selling us cars by the million.”
Such rhetoric led some experts to suspect that Trump may hold the view that allies are more of a liability than an asset to U.S. interests.
In contrast, outgoing President Barack Obama placed a great deal of importance on alliances. He said last month the Japan-U.S. alliance “stands as the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific and a force for progress around the globe.”
American experts say Trump should quickly reassure Japan of U.S. commitments under the bilateral security treaty, especially as the regional situation has become tense amid China’s military buildup and assertive territorial claims in the East and South China seas, as well as apparent progress in North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons development.
More specifically, they want Trump to affirm, as Obama did unequivocally, that the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea fall under Article 5 of the treaty. Article 5 states that the United States will defend Japan in the event of conflict over the islands.
“It will be looked at very closely, I think, not just by Japan, but by other players in the region, including China, as whether or not there is continuity in the U.S. commitment toward Japan,” said Rust Deming, an adjunct professor of Japan studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Deming, a former deputy chief of mission of the United States to Japan, said that to underscore such continuity, he hopes the new secretaries of state and defense will visit Japan soon after the launch of a Trump administration.
As for Trump’s repeated calls for Japan and other U.S. allies to pay more for deployment costs for the U.S. military — or else defend themselves — Abe is expected to tell Trump that Japan regards its nearly 75 percent contribution as appropriate.
“We should think that both Japan and the United States benefit from the role played by U.S. forces stationed in Japan,” Abe said during a Diet session in November. “U.S. forces in Japan are the key to Washington’s forward deployment strategy and serve to protect various U.S. interests.”
The Japanese public seems to agree. A telephone poll conducted by Kyodo News in late November showed that 86.1 percent of respondents do not think Japan should pay more for hosting U.S. troops.
Bruce Klingner, the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, stressed the merits the U.S. maintaining its military presence in Japan and other parts of the economically dynamic region.
“It’s not only cheaper to have, in many cases, troops over there rather than here. But far more important than the dollar cost, they are there for our interest, including maintaining peace and stability in Asia,” Klingner said. “And you can’t put a cost on the deterrence that they have — wars they deter, provocative actions they deter.”