CANBERRA – U.S. President Donald Trump has mounted a four-front (trade, immigration, alliances and nuclear policy) offensive against the existing liberal international order designed and maintained by Washington since 1945. Japan has been a major beneficiary of, stakeholder in, and contributor to that global order. Consequently Japan has an exceptional opportunity, while maneuvering to remain close to Washington, to reduce its unhealthy security and economic dependency on the United States, and to educate the U.S. administration on the merits and benefits of the key planks of a rules-based global order and international cooperation.
The changes to U.S. immigration policy and practices are probably immune to Japanese criticism given Japan’s own miserly refugee intake (fewer than 100 per year) and opposition to large-scale immigration, despite numerous studies showing the benefits of this in resuscitating Japan’s lackluster economy with a shrinking population.
An efficient and trade-dependent economy, Japan had invested heavily in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, whose latent but obvious anti-China premise was always problematic, that has now been dumped. This increases the importance of bilateral and regional free trade agreements, which do not privilege investor rights to profits over consumer and worker rights and environmental safeguards. Japan has benefited hugely from globally integrated supply, production and consumption chains that risk being ruptured by U.S. protectionist policies. Japan must speak up for and defend the rules-based open international economy.
The United Nations was helpful in reintegrating Japan into the international community and Tokyo seeks permanent membership of the Security Council. The U.N. system is the biggest incubator of global rules to govern the world: from trade, refugees and the law of the sea, to health, the use of force, sanctions and the regulation of armaments. That is, the U.N. is the cornerstone of an effective rules-based global order in setting international standards, norms, treaties and legal principles. Japan should be at the forefront of defending the purposes and activities of the organization while supporting all reform efforts, highlighting the urgency of restructuring the Security Council, and impressing upon Trump the utility and value of the U.N.
Should Japan act on Trump’s suggestion to acquire nuclear weapons and missiles? The benefits of any such radical shift in national security strategy would quickly prove illusory for they are not particularly useful for the purposes of defense or deterrence.
By contrast, the costs and penalties would be substantial. If Japan cheated on its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations, it would quickly become a pariah state. If it withdrew from the NPT to weaponize, Japan would morph from an almost universally admired, humane, civilian good international citizen to one whose international reputation is destroyed.
Regional fears of a nuclear-armed remilitarized Japan would be stoked, deepening strategic mistrust across Northeast Asia. The government would pay a very domestic price for acutely inflaming the public’s nuclear allergy. The alliance with the U.S. could be strained to the breaking point. Most importantly, the NPT, which has mostly kept the nuclear genie in check, would be in ruins with a cascade of proliferation that would be intensely damaging to Japan’s national security.
Instead Japan would do better to actively promote nuclear disarmament. So far Tokyo has been disingenuous in paying lip service to tepid efforts to abolish the bomb as a sop to domestic anti-nuclear sentiment, while lobbying furiously against all genuine efforts to that end. Unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament would not be in Japan’s interest, but verifiable global nuclear disarmament would, for it would lock in massive U.S. conventional superiority for decades to come. It is past time for Japan to shed its hesitations and ambivalence that has led to Tokyo punching well below its weight in nuclear diplomacy.
On alliance policy, by all accounts Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meeting with Trump was an unqualified success — with Pyongyang helpfully providing a timely photo opportunity of the two leaders engaging in intense discussions of North Korea’s Feb. 12 launch of a medium-range ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. Nevertheless Japan needs to pursue a double hedging strategy, against a possible weakening of U.S. commitment and against possible future threats to national security.
No ally can be confident any longer of the depth and reliability of the U.S. security guarantee, or that it will be honored should a threat materialize. Trump has given enough indications of skepticism toward allies’ contributions to their own defense, unpredictable policy preferences and reversals, and a deep instinct for isolationism and disengagement, to justify self-reliant policies in Europe and the Pacific alike. Nor is there any indication that the relative U.S. decline and the parallel continuing strategic ascendancy of China have come to a halt with an end to the history of power transitions.
While Japan must continue to do everything possible to engage in constructive and friendly relations with China, prudence dictates it cannot ignore the reality of conflicting major interests, the possibility of a rupture in relations leading to unplanned or deliberately provoked armed conflict, and the resulting imperative to build military capacity to cope with all plausible threat scenarios.
In addition to strengthening military assets, Tokyo must also deepen relations with friendly countries in Asia and the Pacific, especially the major democracies of Australia, India and Indonesia. It would help if Japan softened its Western orientation to reclaim its Asian identity.
The strategy of strengthening regional diplomatic relationships in turn is held hostage to Japan’s stubborn refusal to openly confront the ugliness of its past culminating in World War II, to deny irrefutable facts on the brutal treatment of peoples its forces occupied, to demonstrate contrition whose authenticity is beyond question, and so to position Japan to be able to move on from the ghosts of history like Germany has done in Europe. Infuriating to neighbors, such history denialism is also exasperating to Japan’s many well-wishers.
One final suggestion. I have long thought Japan should establish an international advisory board as an alternative, independent and contestable source of analyses and recommendations on Japan’s engagement with the world beyond its borders. Chaired preferably by the prime minister to give it clout and status, or else by the foreign minister with a foreign national as deputy chair, at least half its members should be non-Japanese knowledgeable about world affairs who are known friends of Japan.
To be useful it must include contrarian and diverse voices and not just yes men and women who echo what the government wants to hear. While eschewing public criticism, members could be encouraged to express forthright views in private.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.