In Tokyo on Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga quoted the White House as having denied a report that he had recently mentioned the possibility of terminating the post-war defense pact with Japan, which forms the foundation of the alliance between the two countries.
The top government spokesman was responding to a report issued earlier the same day by Bloomberg News, according to which Trump had recently mused to confidants about withdrawing from the 1951 Japan-U.S. security treaty.
The U.S. president had called the pact “one-sided,” according to the report.
Quoting three unnamed sources, the report said Trump was particularly unhappy that the alliance does not oblige Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to come to America’s aid even though it guarantees U.S. aid in the event Japan is attacked. Under the treaty, Japan instead allows Washington to use vast territorial areas as bases for U.S. military forces.
“There is no such talk as is mentioned in the report. We have confirmed with the U.S. president that (the report) is inconsistent with the American government’s position,” Suga told a regular briefing on Tuesday evening.
The spokesman went on to reassert that the “Japan-U.S. alliance is the linchpin of our diplomatic and national defense policy,” emphasizing that the two allies are “closely coordinating” to preserve the peace and security of the international community.
Experts interviewed by The Japan Times by and large questioned the seriousness of Trump’s reported remark, saying the odds are slim his administration is strategically contemplating the scrapping of the decades-old military alliance.
Such a move “would be a huge decision that would require running roughshod over Congress, the bureaucracy and the military, which I’m sure would rather not lose its bases in Japan,” said Tobias Harris, an expert on Japanese politics at Washington-based consulting firm Teneo Intelligence.
It’s more likely, experts suggest, that Trump’s private musing was deliberately leaked and exploited by his allies looking to finagle further concessions from Tokyo in ongoing U.S.-Japan trade talks.
Yasushi Watanabe, a professor of American studies at Keio University, said Trump’s reported comment is in keeping with his old argument from the presidential campaign in 2016 that Japan is a “free-rider” on American largess under the alliance. It is likely that the president revisited the thought and somehow “blurted it out in the spur of moment,” Watanabe said.
If true, Trump’s musing also appears to run counter to public statements he made during his visit to Tokyo last month that the U.S.-Japan alliance is “steadfast and ironclad.” The comments sound “too irregular to be taken seriously,” the professor added.
“If we were to interpret his statement as intentional, it may have been the case that he was seeking to link security issues with the ongoing trade talks so he can pressure Japan and win a bigger deal,” Watanabe said.
Trump has been “frustrated” by the fact that Washington and Tokyo have yet to ink a trade deal, which was reflected in his recent mention of August as a desirable deadline, U.S. Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty said recently in an interview with The Japan Times.
Hirotsugu Aida, a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University and an expert in American politics, said there are two possibilities to consider: Either Trump expressed his frustration privately without any particular political intention, or he intentionally leaked the remark to Bloomberg to use it as diplomatic leverage against Japan ahead of a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit set to begin Friday in Osaka.
“In the case of the latter, Trump meant that he would have some ideas in the security area if trade negotiations don’t proceed as he likes,” suggested Aida.
Even if the U.S. does not actually intend to scrap the security treaty, Trump could ask for Japan to take on more of the financial burden of supporting U.S. forces in Japan by threatening to do so, Aida added.
Since the 1990s, Trump has long criticized the unilateral obligation for the U.S. to defend Japan. He began making the argument after seeing conservative political commentator Patrick Buchanan gain huge popularity among some U.S. conservative voters during the 1992 presidential election campaign, Aida pointed out.
“So it’s possible he just said what he is actually thinking to some close friends,” he said, noting that in practical terms it would be extremely difficult for the U.S. to overturn its long-standing policy of using the Japan-U.S. military alliance as the centerpiece of its strategy in the Asia-Pacific region.
A similar view was echoed by Ryo Sahashi, an associate professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo.
Given that Trump is set to visit Japan later this week to attend the G20 summit, “it’s possible that Trump’s allies in charge of economic issues used his comments politically by leaking them to the press,” he said.
Trump, Sahashi said, is fundamentally an “independent actor” in his administration, whose mercurial remarks are often used by his aides to serve their own interests — whether in terms of relationships with China or Japan, Sahashi said.
But despite the possible lack of seriousness in Trump’s comment, the report could still leave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe politically vulnerable ahead of the crucial Upper House elections, noted Harris.
“Particularly after having gone to such great lengths to treat Trump well last month, it’s hard to believe that voters will show the same tolerance for Abe’s handling of Trump,” he said. “It certainly looks like a gift to the opposition ahead of the elections next month.”
Staff writers Jesse Johnson and Reiji Yoshida contributed to this report.