WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump directed some harsh rhetoric toward Japan on the campaign trail, but as the 100th day of his presidency on Saturday approaches, he apparently has settled for a mainstream approach to Washington’s relationship with its key ally in Asia.
Faced with strategic challenges such as China’s military buildup and assertive territorial claims in the East and South China seas, as well as North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States, Trump is likely to value the alliance with Japan as his predecessors did, according to American scholars.
“Going forward, I do not expect the Trump administration to drastically alter the main tenets of U.S. policy toward Japan,” said Steven Vogel, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.
“More responsible views are likely to prevail in this area because this is not a priority issue for Trump’s political base,” Vogel said. “Some of his advisers are astute enough to recognize that the United States needs a strong relationship with Japan so that it can engage China and North Korea from a position of strength.”
After Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, uncertainties surfaced in Japan about his commitment to the Japan-U.S. alliance. He had suggested during the campaign that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Japan, South Korea and other allies unless they pay more of the cost of stationing U.S. forces in their countries.
Nor did he provide assurance of U.S. commitment to the defense of the Senkaku Islands, a group of contested islets in the East China Sea, should Beijing attempt to seize them.
“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.”
Trump’s earlier rhetoric suggests that he viewed Japan and other allies as more of a liability than an asset to U.S. interests.
Following Trump’s election, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe swiftly arranged a meeting with him on Nov. 17 in New York, making him the first foreign leader to hold talks with the president-elect.
From that meeting, Trump reaffirmed U.S. commitment to the security of Japan, including the Senkakus, in accordance with the bilateral security treaty. During talks with Abe at the White House on Feb. 10, Trump called the alliance “the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Pacific region” and even thanked Japan for hosting U.S. forces.
Trump’s shift to a more traditional and realistic stance toward Japan consistent with past U.S. policy may be attributed to advice from aides such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as Abe’s proactive diplomacy, experts say.
“The overwhelming feedback from people around Mr. Trump explained to him that Japan is a great asset for the U.S. and not the major part of the economic and trade problem,” said James Schoff, a senior fellow for the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.
“He heard similar things from corporate leaders and state governors, I believe,” Schoff said. “There are some voices that confirm his concern about Japan’s trade practices, but when combined with Mr. Abe’s proactive diplomacy and initial personal rapport with Mr. Trump, a smoother start for the alliance was realized.”
While Trump’s first 100 days in office have seen steadier-than-expected alliance management, he has pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a regional trade deal of which Japan is a member — and there have been signs of potential friction between the new administration and Tokyo over economic and trade issues.
Advocating his view of fair trade, Trump has criticized countries such as China, Japan and Germany for running large trade surpluses with the U.S., alleging that they weaken their currencies to gain an unfair trade advantage.
Similarly, senior administration officials have accused Japan of maintaining nontariff barriers for its automobile market while they have also criticized the country’s high import tariffs for agricultural products.
Last week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence signaled eagerness to start negotiations with Japan for a bilateral free trade agreement. Japanese officials are cautious about such a pact because it could prompt the Trump administration to step up market-opening pressure on Tokyo, especially in the politically sensitive farm sector and auto trade.
With a clear vision or strategy for Trump’s foreign policy not yet in sight, Schoff said, “We might still see arguments over trade issues, especially once Mr. Trump’s team is finally in place and other countries that struck an FTA or economic partnership agreement with Japan begin to reap benefits, such as increased beef exports from Australia.”
More broadly, Vogel said Trump’s Japan policy “remains plagued by some of the afflictions” of his administration, citing “a chief executive with low credibility, no guiding policy paradigm, insufficient coordination among his top advisers and a lack of expertise in important areas with many key positions still unfilled.”
According to the latest poll by the Washington Post and ABC News, Trump’s approval rating stands at 42 percent, the lowest recorded at this stage of a presidency dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who took office in 1953.