Commentary / Japan

Trump's Japan-bashing and the security alliance

by Yoichi Funabashi

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee in the United States presidential election, has repeatedly attacked Japan. Trump’s “Japan bashing” centers upon two main points.

The first is that Japan is profiting unfairly by using the weak yen as a weapon with which to ravage the U.S. market. On a related note, Trump has made a full-on attack of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, describing the free trade agreement as “a mortal threat to American manufacturing.”

Trump has also attacked Japan’s “free ride” under the U.S.-Japan security alliance. Trump says it is strange that the U.S. is obligated to come to Japan’s aid if Japan comes under attack from a third country, while Japan bears no such responsibility toward the U.S.

Trump’s words are a vivid reminder of the anti-Japan attacks spewed forth by American critics during Japan’s ascent as an economic powerhouse in the 1980s: theories regarding Japan’s “free ride” on defense and Japan’s essentially “alien” character.

Meanwhile, a small “Trump boom” is bubbling up in China, where Chinese bloggers appear to be deriving some satisfaction from Trump’s iconoclastic attacks on the American ruling class.

The University of Macao’s Dingding Chen identifies two factors behind Trump’s popularity in China. First, it may reflect the desire of many Chinese for a similar figure, willing to take on the Chinese Communist Party leadership, to emerge in their own country. Second, Trump’s Japan-bashing could weaken the U.S.-Japan alliance, thereby clearing the way for a more expansive U.S.-China relationship.

Many within the Republican Party have made rebuttals to Trump’s remarks regarding Japan’s “free riding:” “Every year Japan allocates enormous sums to maintain U.S. military bases in Japan. Japan’s contribution is roughly equivalent to our annual budget for maintaining domestic bases,” says one. Another contends, “Trump’s complaint that Japan should pay us more for protection is really no different from the old Chinese tribute system.” Nevertheless, Trump’s passion for protectionism and his isolationist stance have captured the hearts of many Americans.

As was the case in both world wars, the twin urges toward protectionism and isolationism emerge whenever the world economy stagnates, the international order breaks down, and domestic politics fissure. In the case of the U.S., this dual phenomenon also reflects the deep scars left by the Iraq War and the Lehman shock.

The administration of President Barack Obama sees the conclusion of the TPP agreement as a major achievement of his presidency. The administration has also made clear that it will adhere to the alliance with Japan and fulfill its obligations to defend the disputed Senkaku islands, which are under the administration of Japan. On these two points, Obama differs from Trump.

However, Obama has maintained his cautious position of “leading from behind” when it comes to U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and declared that the U.S. will not act as the “world’s policeman.” Obama sees the world as “a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy” (as he said in March in an interview for The Atlantic). It is no wonder that Americans would prefer to turn their backs on the outside world when their president repeatedly discusses his world view in such terms. Moreover, Obama has expressed his dissatisfaction with meager British and French contributions to security efforts in the Middle East and Europe, and has criticized Britain and France for “free riding.” On this point, the positions of Obama and Trump are quite similar.

Behind the “Trump phenomenon” is the general public’s deep distrust of the elite, which borders on hatred. In the eyes of the masses, the elite are not only corrupt, but incompetent. They are not only economic “winners” with pretensions to a special, exclusive existence, but they look down upon the rest as “losers.” The Trump movement is one of destruction, fueled by these feelings of loss and alienation. It is also a form of American irredentism, which seeks to restore the “real” America of the past.

With the end of the Cold War, European and American elites may have become careless in their treatment of the masses. This had been impossible during the Cold War period, as it would have run the risk of losing the common people to the forces of socialism. Elites were thus forced to demonstrate respect and humility before the general public.

In the post-Cold War era of globalization, however, the new global elite may have lost this healthy form of self-restraint as they exult in their moment of triumph.

In the U.S., the Trump phenomenon threatens to weaken the domestic political base supporting the open, liberal and cooperative international order, which is rooted in a “free, non-discriminatory, multilateral” trade structure and the principle of “freedom of navigation.”

This will prove to be a serious challenge for Japan, and for the Japan-U.S. alliance. In modern times, Japan has always prospered under the conditions of a liberal and cooperative international order.

This was true of the first two decades of the 20th century, during the Anglo-Japanese alliance, and in the postwar era, under the Japan-U.S. security alliance. As a trading state and maritime nation, Japan has historically been most powerful — and successful in maintaining peaceful and stable diplomatic relations — when it has deepened its ties of interdependence and expanded activities in the outside world.

The enormous changes to the American political landscape have come just as this structure is being threatened by China’s “Asian Monroe doctrine” and the Chinese offensive to gain control of the South China Sea. Even if Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate, ultimately wins the presidential race, her victory may nevertheless prompt a reconsideration of both the U.S. policy of a rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and its TPP trade strategy.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.