Sony’s had a truly dreadful couple of years, what with lost market share, getting hacked by North Korea and suffering the rising yen’s wrath. To the list of indignities, the Japan Inc. icon can now add getting roped into Donald Trump’s anti-Japan tantrums.
“You know we have a treaty with Japan, where if Japan is attacked, we have to use the full force and might of the United States,” the Republican nominee for president said Friday. “If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do anything. They can sit home and watch Sony television, OK?
The real question is whether Trump’s geopolitical ignorance knows no boundaries, even on America’s key allies? A quick Google search would inform Trump that the U.S. penned the post-war Constitution barring Japan from sending troops overseas. It would tell him that Japan put boots on the ground in Iraq anyway to aid the U.S. in the early 2000s. It would school Trump on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to change Article 9 of the Constitution so Tokyo can join America’s future military adventures.
Trump’s threat “it could be necessary” to blow off a security arrangement that’s kept peace in Asia for decades rounded out a dreadful couple of weeks for his campaign.
After insulting the family of a fallen Muslim war hero, betraying a complete misunderstanding of Russia’s Ukraine incursion, spurned NATO allies and calling Hillary Clinton “the devil,” it boggles the mind why he’d troll Washington’s best friend in Asia amid China’s rise. “You always have to be prepared to walk,” Trump said, inspiring face-palming among global security experts.
But here let’s explore Trump’s economic ignorance. It’s hard to miss the time warp quality of his Sony jab, a company that’s shrunk steadily from the global stage since the 1980s. Sony’s nightmare deepened after Apple’s iPod, iPhone or iPad disruptions. Other than gamers still buying its PlayStation offerings, Sony is increasingly a banking, insurance and asset-management company being eclipsed by Samsung. Really, raise your hand if you buy Sony televisions anymore.
One could argue that, by dissing Japan, Trump is carrying water for his pal Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s no more enthusiastic about the Japan-U.S. security arrangements than NATO’s. Yet Trump is reminding us that he views the world through a 1986 lens, not one representative of where we are in 2016.
Take his view that Japan is a predatory trader, one he’s expressed early and often in this campaign and one implicit in his hostility toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership. No doubt, there was a time when unfair tactics undermined U.S. automakers’ access to the Japanese market. There was a moment when Tokyo mulled dumping its vast U.S. Treasury debt holdings to irk Washington. There’s plenty of reason for beef, agriculture and entertainment exporters to gripe about Japanese bureaucracy. Takeover defenses still abound in Asia’s No. 2 economy.
But to conflate Japan’s idiosyncrasies with China’s rigging of the global trade system is just ridiculous. In his demands that China stop “stealing” U.S. jobs and “killing us,” Trump routinely adds “and Japan, too!” as if it’s still 1986. He routinely exaggerates Washington’s trade deficit with Tokyo, complaining Japan buys “practically nothing” from America and hyperventilates that U.S. companies are moving jobs to Japan (when they haven’t in decades).
Trump spouts plenty of nonsense about China, too. His recent comments about “disastrous trade deals” devastating U.S. manufacturing would be more truthful five years ago. Today, surging labor costs are sending Chinese jobs to Vietnam, Bangladesh and elsewhere in Asia. Trump’s argument, were he to weigh the facts, would be more with the smartphone apps upending entire industries failing to innovate and adapt and America’s creaking education system. And the 25 percent tariffs on Chinese products about which Trump ruminates could cut U.S. living standards more than they raise them.
Even so, China is infinitely more deserving of Trump’s trade broadsides than Japan. Trump’s gratuitous swipes at Japan risk alienating a trusted partner. They also ignore the conversation the next U.S. president should be having to Japan: the need for Tokyo to get serious about reform.
For reasons that Japan watchers will long debate, U.S. President Barack Obama went easy on Abe’s economic revival moves. Seeking Japan’s inclusion in TPP and its help reining in China, Obama looked the other way as Tokyo devalued the yen by 30 percent — a policy that irked China and South Korea (and one now unraveling before Abe’s eyes). Obama avoided Abe’s failure to implement major structural changes aimed at quickening growth and contributing more to global demand.
Trump may be right to take a tougher stance on Tokyo, but it should be about economics, not military cooperation. A businessman and self-described one-man savior, Trump should urge Japan to pull its weight as a stakeholder in global growth, instead of just being a shareholder.
Supply-side steps to encourage Japanese entrepreneurship, lower trade barriers, loosen labor laws, empower women and reduce bureaucracy would be a boon for global prosperity. Trump should urge Japan, China, Germany, France and other major nations to get their acts together to increase economic tailwinds.
Taking cheap shots at Sony and Japan only serves to fuel distrust between two powers with more to gain from cooperating than returning to the conflicts of 30 years ago. It’s also a missed opportunity to encourage Abe to make Japan’s economy great again and help a possible Trump White House do the same for the U.S.
William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia, is based in Tokyo and writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com
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