If U.S. President Donald Trump can defy current public opinion polls and win re-election, his return to the White House will add urgency to the need for Japan to re-examine its security and economic relationships with other countries as Washington grows more isolated.
“If Trump is re-elected, I think there are two different ways this will impact Japan,” said James Schoff, a former senior Pentagon East Asia specialist now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “One is at a macro level of America’s political and economic health, and the other is at a more micro level of policy choices that Japan cares about.”
Among the policy issues likely to cause the most consternation in Tokyo in a second Trump term are negotiations over the amount Japan contributes to support U.S. forces stationed in the country and Washington’s increasingly acrimonious ties with Beijing.
Trump has repeatedly voiced disdain for the U.S. alliance system, calling allied countries freeloaders that should pay more of the costs associated with hosting American troops.
If the United States’ contentious cost-sharing talks with fellow ally South Korea are any indication of what Japan can expect in its own negotiations due to kick off this fall, Tokyo is likely to face pressure to significantly boost its financial contribution.
Seoul and Washington are currently engaged in protracted negotiations, with the U.S. reportedly seeking up to $5 billion a year to support the troop presence there — up from $870 million under last year’s bilateral Special Measures Agreement.
Japan’s so-called host-nation support, which totals nearly ¥200 billion ($1.9 billion) annually, covers costs for base workers, utilities and other expenses. The current five-year agreement is set to expire at the end of next March.
Under its security treaty with the U.S., about 50,000 American troops are stationed at bases in Japan that serve as a hub for forward-deployed forces.
According to former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton’s memoir, Trump has demanded that Japan pay $8 billion per year for costs associated with hosting American troops — or risk him withdrawing them.
In an interview last month, Bolton said the odds of a reduction or withdrawal of U.S. forces in Japan during a second Trump term would be “much greater than before the election.”
Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific who’s now vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said that a continuation of the Trump White House “means that Japan is going to be put through the wringer to extract as much money as possible” in exchange for continuing to host U.S. forces.
“That is a potentially damaging, if not brutal fight, that lies ahead,” he said. “Trump has made clear again and again that he has contempt for allies like Japan, who he has labeled freeloaders. He’s made clear again and again that he sees the alliance relationship as a mercenary contract and his objective seems to be to renegotiate that contract to turn a profit.”
Schoff echoed this sentiment, saying that frictions were almost sure to arise in such a scenario.
“Tokyo simply cannot give in to Trump’s demands, and this could result in some sort of Trump trade retaliation — especially in the auto sector — or a diminishing of alliance security cooperation,” he said.
In the security sphere, Tokyo has steadily increased its defense budgets in recent years, while also purchasing advanced U.S. weapons and bolstering joint training between the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military. Trump would likely push for more of this in a second term, especially after Japan’s sudden announcement in late June that it was canceling a planned acquisition and deployment of the Aegis Ashore missile defense system.
The business sector has also been forced to respond to Trump’s ramped-up economic activities targeting China. In April, Japan’s government unveiled an attempt to slash reliance on Chinese factories, announcing that it would subsidize a handful of companies to shift operations or expand them into Japan and Southeast Asia. So far 87 firms have received the subsidies, which will pay out ¥243.5 billion ($2.3 billion).
Still, while deeply concerned about growing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region, Tokyo has worked to craft an approach to Beijing that balances those concerns with its deep-rooted economic interests in China.
But a Trump second term might see the U.S. increasing pressure on Tokyo to line up behind various specific punitive policies directed at China — especially with its Clean Network initiative, which attempts to address the long-term threat to data privacy, security and human rights posed to democracies by authoritarian regimes and malign actors, according to the State Department.
When it comes to the Sino-Japanese ties, Russel said he could envision Tokyo facing “a very rough ride in a second Trump term.”
“Already we’ve seen a … dynamic in which the Trump administration is seeking to force Japan to make an untenable, absolute choice between a relationship with Beijing and a relationship with Washington,” he said.
Given the geography of East Asia, trade flows, huge Japanese investment in China and the importance of that market, Russel said demands by the U.S. that Tokyo take an adversarial stance toward Beijing, as opposed to objecting to specific problematic behavior, is “an approach that creates immense difficulties for Japan and ultimately is unsustainable.”
All of this could come as a second Trump White House pursues “Phase Two” trade negotiations with Japan that would likely include addressing nontariff barriers for the auto sector.
Taken together, said Schoff, these moves may prompt Japan to seek coordination and solidarity with other partners such as the European Union, Australia, India and even South Korea, which currently remains embroiled with Japan in a row over historical and trade issues.
Regarding Seoul-Tokyo ties, the White House under Trump has been conspicuously hands-off — a trend experts say is unlikely to change, despite the value of trilateral ties in confronting nuclear-armed North Korea.
“I don’t see any interest from Trump to help push for reconciliation,” said Frank Aum, an expert on North Korea at the United States Institute for Peace.
“He doesn’t seem to subscribe to the vision of a U.S.-led security architecture in Asia so weakened Seoul-Tokyo ties don’t seem to be a concern for him,” said Aum, who previously served as the senior adviser for North Korea in the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Trump raised eyebrows in Tokyo on Aug. 7, saying that if he wins re-election the U.S. will make a deal “very quickly” with North Korea. For Russel, who worked on North Korean nuclear issues in the Obama administration, that was “a terrifying” statement.
Analysts say that Pyongyang has continued to refine and increase its nuclear capabilities despite Trump’s bromance with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Those improvements — including with its shorter-range, maneuverable missiles — should be particularly concerning for Tokyo.
“Given the North Korean propaganda against Japan, I am very worried that Japan is a more tempting target for North Korean threats and extortion than even South Korea,” Russel said.
Ultimately, a Trump win could result in a more intensely divided nation, a dearth of talented people entering government service, and a deeper U.S. isolation from traditional allies and partners, observers say.
“All of this points to a more disengaged and increasingly irrelevant United States under Trump, with respect to foreign policy,” said Schoff. “This will accelerate the need for Japan to diversify its security and economic partnerships with other nations and at times oppose the Trump administration more directly on important international policy issues such as climate change, free trade and nonproliferation.”
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