Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election casts a spell of uncertainty over Japan’s relations with the United States perhaps not seen ahead of the inauguration of any previous American president in recent decades. Along with much of his foreign policy, Trump’s views on U.S. ties with Japan seem to remain largely unclear — except for his campaign remarks about seeking to get America’s allies, including Japan, to pay more for the cost of their security alliances and pledges to pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, which the Abe administration is rushing to get ratified in the Diet over the resistance of the opposition despite the dwindling chances of the trade pact entering into force.
As it explores bilateral relations with the incoming U.S. administration, the Japanese government may not be able to count on business as usual, given the changing dynamics of American politics and popular sentiments that propelled Trump to his upset win over Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton. But the government also needs to avoid being swayed by what the president-elect has said or will say. Rather, the uncertainty should give a chance for Japan — not just the government but the public as well — to stop and think how we like to proceed in our relations with the U.S., including the security alliance.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, apparently caught off guard with Trump’s upset win, has wasted no time in trying to approach the new president-elect and his team. Abe ordered his close aide to fly to Washington next week to contact members of Trump’s prospective staff. The prime minister held brief telephone talks with Trump the morning after the election win and agreed that they should seek to meet in New York next Thursday on his way to Peru to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru.
Abe, who held talks with Clinton when he visited New York in September for the annual United Nations summit, was apparently betting that the former U.S. secretary of state would win — and that her administration would carry on the basic direction of President Barack Obama’s policy on relations with Japan. The security legislation that Abe got enacted last year, lifting Japan’s long-standing self-imposed ban on the nation engaging in collective self-defense, essentially seeks to expand defense cooperation with the U.S., which his administration counts on as deterrence against China’s increasingly assertive maritime posture and North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. The TPP deal that Japan negotiated with the U.S. and 10 other countries has been viewed as not just a multilateral free trade pact but a part of a broader strategy to build a U.S.-led framework among Asia-Pacific economies with an eye on China’s expanding clout in the region.
It won’t be immediately known how much of Trump’s remarks during the presidential race was mere campaign rhetoric. But his repeated talk of having allies pay more for the cost of their alliances with the U.S., including a suggestion that he might pull American troops out of Japan if Tokyo refuses to share a greater financial burden of deployment (though it’s not clear whether he was aware that Tokyo already covers a major portion of the expenses when he made the remark), has been enough to cast uncertainty over America’s commitment to its security alliances under a Trump presidency.
The TPP deal is seen as effectively doomed with the victory of Trump, who vowed during the campaign to pull the U.S. out of the free trade pact on the day he takes office, since endorsement of the U.S. Congress is necessary for the pact to enter into force. Though Clinton has also expressed her opposition to the TPP deal for that matter, Trump’s vows to review the free trade agreements that the U.S. concluded in the past, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), to bring back American jobs that he claims were lost overseas because of the free trade deals cast a shadow of protectionism over the trade policies of the incoming administration. What specific policy steps he will take as president to pursue his pledges — or how that could possibly affect Japan’s trade and economic interests — remain to be seen.
Abe told the Diet on Friday that in the telephone talks with Trump they confirmed the importance of further solidifying the Japan-U.S. security alliance. The unusual move for the prime minister to meet with the U.S. president-elect before he takes office may reflect his administration’s jitters over the uncertainty in Trump’s views toward relations with Japan. But just like many other aspects of the Trump presidency, much of his specific policy on relations with Japan will likely remain opaque until the president-elect selects his administration’s key staff on foreign and defense areas.
The incoming Trump presidency and the questions that it poses may provide an opportunity for all of us to reassess what are Japan’s priorities in its relations with the U.S. and proceed with what we believe is in our best interests — instead of either stressing business as usual or overreacting to the president-elect’s campaign remarks.
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