Commentary / Japan

Trump bump: Building on U.S. president's visit

by Thomas Cynkin

Now that the dust has cleared in the aftermath of U.S. President Donald Trump’s state visit to Japan, it would be useful to assess the impact of the visit in strictly practical terms, and to consider harnessing the positive momentum it created to the lasting benefit of the U.S.-Japan relationship.

Certainly the welcome afforded Trump and his entourage served to strengthen the already strong personal bond between the president and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Setting aside the highly impressive pomp and circumstance of the visit, in which Trump was showered with every honor Abe could muster, the underlying substance and policy implications were also significant for bilateral trade and security relations.

Trump demurred from pounding the Japanese on trade and afforded Abe several months’ grace to get him past the Upper House election in July. In a meeting with key Japanese business leaders, while expressing general concern about the trade deficit, he even made a point of expressing appreciation to Toyota (in comments largely ignored by the press) — which had recently excoriated the United States for contemplating auto tariffs — for announcing new U.S. investments of $750 million and increasing its five-year investment plan to $13 billion, “with plans to add many, many new American manufacturing jobs.”

While Japanese government officials may have breathed a collective sigh of relief at the respite until after the election is over, once this grace period lapses they may expect accelerated efforts by the Trump administration to seal the deal on a bilateral trade treaty. From Tokyo’s perspective, it may seem galling to reward Washington with trade concessions that the U.S. would have received if it had only adhered to the Trans- Pacific Partnership. Meanwhile, Japan is not receiving the main TPP deliverable it originally expected from the U.S. in return: namely, active U.S. participation in a trade bloc to counter, or at least serve as a meaningful alternative to, the centripetal economic force of China in Asia.

Not surprising, therefore, that the Japanese government continues to adroitly “kick the can down the road” on a bilateral trade deal for the U.S. Japanese officials and pundits can undoubtedly marshal economic facts and statistics to bolster their case for resisting U.S. pressure for a trade deal, or to squabble over minor concessions, but to do so would be to lose sight of the big picture. The evidence continues to mount that U.S. agriculture and food exporters are losing market share to TPP members, such as Australia, that are receiving preferential access to the Japanese market. This is inexorably leading to growing frustration among a key segment of Trump’s constituents in farm states — a number of which could go to either the Republican or Democratic presidential candidate in the 2020 election — so naturally Tokyo can expect U.S. pressure to intensify on market access for American agricultural products.

Economic revitalization minister Toshimitsu Motegi has called for a comprehensive trade agreement, and of course there are numerous additional, complicating factors in the U.S.-Japan trade equation — ranging from motor vehicles that constitute the lion’s share of the U.S. trade deficit with Japan, to digital trade, to a “currency clause” proposed by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to prevent competitive devaluations. The motives and opportunities for Japanese negotiators to drag out trade negotiations seem clear.

However, Japan’s policymakers would be wise to utilize the Trump “grace period” to demonstrate good faith with their American interlocutors and move rapidly toward sealing a deal. For as we approach the 2020 election, if Japanese negotiators are seen to be stalling or attempting to leverage time pressure to get a better deal, the U.S. reaction could be severe — auto tariffs could be just the starting point — as was the case when China allegedly backtracked on its trade negotiation posture in the recent round of the talks. Far better to build on the positive momentum of the Trump visit to achieve a deal with minimal acrimony.

On national security, perhaps the capstone of Trump’s Japan visit was a tour of the helicopter carrier Kaga, one of the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s two largest ships. The visit was reportedly the first-ever inspection by a U.S. president of a Japanese warship. Given that the last Japanese warship named Kaga was an aircraft carrier that took part in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, it was an odd juxtaposition for Trump’s visit to take place over Memorial Day weekend — a U.S. federal holiday dedicated to remembering those who died while serving in the U.S. armed forces. But this demonstrated how far Japan-U.S. relations have come in the nearly 75 years since World War II.

Beyond the obvious photo op, there were several important symbolic aspects of Trump boarding the Kaga. The visit presented a strong, visual confirmation that Japan is developing a more robust force posture, is increasingly pulling its weight in the Japan-U.S. alliance, and is purchasing major U.S. military hardware to undergird these efforts. Abe’s government announced last December that the Kaga and its sister ship, the Izumo, would be retrofitted to fly the F-35B Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter. While on board, Trump applauded this initiative as well as Japan’s purchase of F-35s. “This very ship will be upgraded to carry that cutting-edge aircraft. With this extraordinary new equipment, the JS Kaga will help our nations defend against a range of complex threats in the region and far beyond,” Trump said.

The twin vessels are a potent symbol of power projection — and as such, they have already drawn critical comments from China (which has its own aircraft carrier program). Indeed, they resemble some WWII aircraft carriers, weighing 24,000 tons and measuring over 240 meters long. However, contemporary U.S. aircraft carriers are much larger at 114,000 tons and more than 330 meters long. Following the refitting, which is expected to take several years, the F-35Bs will not be permanently deployed aboard; they will be land-based and brought aboard as is operationally required. They will be operated by Air Self-Defense Force pilots, which will require strong inter-service coordination to provide carrier capability.

This capability will enhance Japan’s ability to conduct territorial defense further from its main islands and further complicate China’s naval power projection; for example, around the Senkaku Islands, which are over 400 km from the nearest Japanese air base on Okinawa.

That said, the sister ships will not be comparable to U.S. aircraft carriers operating in carrier strike groups, nor is there apparently any intention on the part of Tokyo to utilize them as such. That might even require a third Izumo-class vessel just to keep one on deployment at all times, given the requirement for rotations for depot maintenance and training periods.

Abe displayed a formidable symbol of Japanese naval readiness during the Trump visit, invoking the historic imagery of Japanese aircraft carriers and power projection capability. Having done so, Abe’s government should consider redoubling its efforts to fully conceptualize the role of these vessels in its naval strategy, as well as developing the means of enhancing their utility. In this manner, Tokyo would be leveraging the momentum of the Trump visit to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance not just symbolically, but in a concrete and forward-leaning manner.

Thomas Cynkin is a former U.S. charge d’affaires to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. He is vice president of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security.

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