With Democrats retaking control of the House of Representatives in Tuesday’s U.S. midterm elections, Tokyo may see President Donald Trump accelerate his war on what he considers “unfair” trade with Japan, as he seeks ways to fire up his political base ahead of the 2020 presidential election, experts said.
In an election largely seen as a referendum on Trump’s policies and leadership style, the midterms on Tuesday appeared to deliver a tempered rebuke of the president. Media polls showed Democrats were set to win a majority in the House, while Republicans were set to maintain control of the Senate.
“We believe the idea that the Japan-U.S. alliance is unshakable is shared by both parties, so I don’t think the outcome of the poll will directly affect our bilateral relations,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday.
Still, the prospect of a divided Congress left experts fretting over the extent to which Trump may harden his protectionist policies to offset voter disillusionment with the political chaos that may be in store for him at home.
Observers said the loss of the House could galvanize Trump into taking a more hard-line attitude toward Japan.
Trump’s chances of being re-elected in 2020 have also taken a hit, since a Democratic-controlled House means that investigations into a slew of allegations leveled at the president, including his alleged collusion with Russia and tax fraud, are likely to pick up speed.
This, coupled with Democrats’ newfound power to reject bills and budgets in the House, as well as the possibility they could start impeachment proceedings against Trump, could significantly undermine any legislative push by the White House.
A cornered Trump, then, may start looking for ways to maintain support from working-class voters by revving up his “America First” policy and taking full advantage of areas where he can look tough — namely trade and foreign policy, experts said.
In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, “President Trump will start thinking about what he can do on trade relations with Japan to please his support base,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
For example, he said, Trump could request more Japanese auto factories be built in some U.S. states.
“Japan-U.S. negotiations could become tough,” he said.
This view was echoed by Ryoji Watanabe, a senior analyst well-versed in U.S. and trade policy at Sumitomo Corporation of Americas, who said a divided Congress could push Trump to focus on areas within his realm of authority, including trade and diplomacy.
“As trade issues take center stage, it’s probable that the pressure on Japan to do their part will be high, as well,” he said.
Although the main focus will be trade issues with China, there is a possibility that external factors could drive concerns that the U.S. agriculture sector is losing its competitive edge in the global market, ramping up pressure on Japan to open up its markets to the U.S., he added. These factors could include the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which will enter into force at the year’s end.
Hiroshi Kubotani, a senior researcher at the NLI Research Institute, agreed that Trump may try to make the most of his presidential authority by attempting to strike demanding trade deals, making U.S.-Japan negotiations more difficult than before.
Kubotani said that while the midterm results were unlikely to directly affect bilateral trade negotiations, Tokyo “should prepare to feel the pressure to accept trade conditions that are more stringent” than the conditions agreed on in the original TPP.
But even if Trump refrains from rallying his base by taking a harder line on trade, a Democratic-controlled House itself indicates, to some degree, that a thorny road awaits Japan, according to Fumiaki Kubo, a University of Tokyo professor specializing in modern American politics.
“Democrats aren’t exactly opposed to Trump when it comes to his stance on trade with Japan, with many of them actually quite hawkish on that front,” Kubo said. “It’s not like they will go out of their way to stop Trump from pushing Japan hard on trade.”
Beyond trade, diplomacy — one of the few things he enjoys a free hand over without having to secure Congressional approval — could also be an arena where Trump looks to stoke the support of his base.
“In areas where Trump sees an opportunity to seem ‘tough’ on an issue, he may find it worthwhile to act,” said Kristi Govella, an assistant professor, at the University of Hawaii’s School of Pacific and Asian Studies. “China is likely to continue to be a target of criticism by the Trump administration, and we may also see less patience with negotiations with North Korea.”
Kubo, however, said the shifting power balance in the House is unlikely to sway Trump’s foreign policy in any fundamental way, citing the “unpredictability” of his diplomacy, which the professor said is governed — first and foremost — by “instinct,” “whim” and “impulse.”
On the other hand, Kubo said, Democrats tend to be more critical of Japan on historical issues, such as the controversy over “comfort women” — a euphemism for mostly Asian women forced to provide sex at Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
In the event these issues are ever taken up in Congress, “chances are the House may adopt a resolution taking a harsher line against Japan,” Kubo said.
Staff writer Jesse Johnson contributed to this report.
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