U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are both eager to develop a strong personal relationship and Abe’s itinerary in the United States, with golf and a visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, are ideal for that purpose.
There is an impression in Tokyo that the Trump administration has common cause with Japan — Trump has made a point of pushing back against China economically and strategically, and this fits Japan’s unease with China’s rise and increasing aggressiveness. But if Japan is not careful in its dealings with the Trump administration, it could find itself with more than it bargained for in containing China and sorely frustrated on trade and economics.
In short, the new Trump administration is showing its inexperience. Like all administrations, there will be mistakes and missteps, and how well the administration can learn and adapt will go a long way toward its success. But these growing pains are far worse than normal.
Radical policies like the executive order on immigration have already alternated with conventional approaches such as the statement saying expansion of Israeli settlements would “not be helpful” to securing peace. Trump’s demands that Japan pay more for U.S. forces stationed in Japan alternates with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis’ statement that Japan pays the right amount. This alternation will likely continue.
Part of this is because of personnel battles, and part of it is ideological. The internal party debates about ideology and strategy are still unresolved despite Republicans’ stunning win in November — and control of Congress and the White House may put more stress on those disputes than ever. Debates between mainstream Republicans, typified by former Speaker of the House John Boehner, and the conservative fundamentalist wing cost Boehner his job as the top Republican and continues to put incredible pressure on Paul Ryan, his replacement.
But with Trump’s election, the internal party debate shifted from conservative versus mainstream Republicans to a debate between Trump versus conservative fundamentalists, with mainstream Republicans still trying to exert influence. If leaks are to be believed, top advisers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are responsible for hard-line actions like the executive order on immigration and defying judicial stays while Vice President Mike Pence pushes back by urging compliance with those stays.
Bannon is the true wildcard in the White House. By all accounts, he is incredibly powerful and the most ideologically extreme member of the West Wing—he is a white nationalist, has said that Christian militants are required for a “brutal and bloody conflict” against the enemies of the Judeo-Christian West, and regularly evokes images of a third world war. Most ominously for Asia, last March he said that the United States would go to war with China over the South China Sea in five to 10 years. It’s unclear whether his comments were prescriptive or speculative, but simply creating expectations of armed conflict can make it more likely if the White House thinks that war is inevitable.
But Bannon has no experience in policymaking or working a bureaucracy, which is a different animal than the media. If it is true that Bannon infuriated Trump by not fully briefing Trump on the executive order that he signed to put Bannon on the National Security Council, then Bannon may be at the start of working his way out of power.
Early indications are that internal division and power struggles will tear the administration apart before it can find its feet. The result is that Trump will be in no position to initiate major policies coming out of his summit with Abe and if he tries, those policies will be mangled by competing players, understaffed bureaucracies with overlapping duties, and plenty of infighting.
For Japan, that may ironically be for the best because there is little in Trump’s economic strategy to inspire optimism in Tokyo. Comments by Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro that he wants to disentangle and nationalize the global value chains upon which multinational corporations depend is a jarring sign of how detached this administration’s economic philosophy is from the orthodoxy that has governed international trade for the past 30 years.
Navarro evaluates trade in terms of the trade balance and nothing else — for all of the PowerPoint presentations and data Abe’s team will bring to Florida, the only number that matters is the $60 billion trade deficit with Japan. This means that currency and market access for U.S. automobiles — both nonstarters for Japan in Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations — will need to be on the table, along with other concessions to close the balance. Whatever concessions Japan could offer beyond the investment package currently being prepared would either be too much to bear for Japanese companies or too little to appease the U.S. negotiators. Japanese policymakers privately acknowledge this, but see it as their best shot.
Abe is correct to develop a strong personal relationship with Trump. But ultimately Japan will need to choose between over-committing to Trump for the sake of maintaining good relations, or tolerating Trump’s anger and all that may come with it. That point won’t be reached this week, but policymakers in Tokyo will need to begin to think about that choice.
Paul Nadeau is a private secretary for a member of the Diet’s Lower House.
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