National / Politics | GAUGING TRUMP

Tokyo all smiles as it takes stock of Trump's nascent team with a wary eye

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

This is the second of a five-part series on Japan’s efforts to assess the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Following President Donald Trump’s stunning election victory on Nov. 8, Japanese leaders were some of the first to step forward and offer congratulations in what appears to be a bid to ensure they remain in the good graces of the 45th president of the United States.

Their efforts show signs of paying off so far. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe managed to become the first global leader to meet him after the win, with the two taking a photo together at the businessman-turned-politician’s glitzy Trump Tower in New York City.

In addition, a key aide to Trump has since affirmed that the U.S. would defend Japan if the Senkaku Islands were ever invaded. The uninhabited islets in the East China Sea are claimed by both China and Taiwan.

But one meeting alone cannot define the future of bilateral relations, particularly given the contradictory positions Trump’s aides have taken on some of his stances. This has prompted officials and observers in Tokyo to question whether there is policy consistency within Trump’s team as they try to better discern the balance of power within it.

This could forebode a rocky relationship between the two countries, they say.

“We need to keep telling Trump that Japan is the best choice (for the U.S.)” as a key partner if it will continue to commit itself to the Asia-Pacific region, said Toshiyuki Nakayama, a professor of American politics and foreign policy at Keio University.

“It’s a good choice for Japan and the region as well,” he told a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last week.

Abe himself appeared to be well aware of the need to promote dialogue with the somewhat erratic American leader. The prime minister repeatedly said he would like to meet with Trump as soon as possible once he assumes power.

Abe even used his annual policy address on Friday to restate that wish. It was the first time he had opened the speech with foreign policy matters, underscoring his eagerness to build a sound relationship with the new leader.

“I’d like to visit the U.S. as soon as possible, and I, together with newly elected President Trump, will further strengthen the alliance’s ties,” Abe told the House of Representatives, repeating his congratulations to Trump.

But this time, Abe is unlikely to be the first foreign leader to meet with President Trump. The White House said British Prime Minister Theresa May will travel to the U.S. to talk with the president on Friday. News reports say a summit with Abe is likely to be scheduled for early February, rather than Friday as initially reported.

“Trump has to spend at least one or two hours listening to Abe speak about Japan” to understand the importance of the alliance, said Fumiaki Kubo, a professor of U.S. government and history at the University of Tokyo.

“It will give Abe a very good opportunity to show him the basics of the alliance mechanism,” Kubo told reporters at the FCCJ last week.

Meanwhile, Japanese officials are particularly concerned that Trump’s stated trade policies, with their appeal to the poor and middle class, could lead to a rise in protectionism in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

In his 17-minute inaugural address in Washington on Friday, Trump doubled down on  his “America First” position. The same day, his administration announced the U.S. was withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, robbing Abe of a much-needed reform pillar to prop up his economic growth strategy.

“For many decades we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military,” Trump said on the steps of the Capitol shortly after being sworn in.

“We’ve defended other nation’s’ borders while refusing to defend our own and spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”

As far as national security is concerned, Tokyo seems to have a less pessimistic view of the alliance than it did right after the election.

“What the designated secretaries of defense and state are saying are very orthodox without any surprises,” said a high-ranking official at the Foreign Ministry. “I would hope that they would follow through on their words.”

For one, Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, said during his confirmation hearing earlier this month that Washington is committed to the defense of Japan should China try to seize the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The cluster of uninhabited islets is claimed by China and Taiwan, which call them Diaoyu and Tiaoyutai, respectively. Tillerson also said the Senkakus fall under Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty, which obliges the two countries to jointly defend a Japan-administered area if attacked by a third country.

James Mattis, who was confirmed as secretary of defense on the first day of the Trump administration, also spoke to the importance of maintaining a strong alliance. Yet he also said that America’s allies have to “carry their fair share of any kind of burden.”

Japan has covered about 50 percent of the base-hosting costs for fiscal 2016.

A senior Japanese official who did not want to be named said that Tokyo’s bid to explain the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance to Trump’s top advisers last November appears to have paid off. But that doesn’t mean the issue is settled, he said.

“Still, they may demand Japan take on more of the financial burden of supporting the U.S. military in the country,” he said.

Tokyo has been directing government officials and LDP heavyweights to network with Trump’s team to get a feel for the new administration. They have a long way to go before the power balance in the new administration can be more accurately assessed.

Trump has 690 political appointees to fill, but only 28 nominees have been announced and two confirmed, according to the Partnership of Public Service, a nonprofit organization in Washington.

“You still can’t tell what the power balance is going to be like. You can’t see who will perform what function until the administration starts working,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.