By the end of this month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump will have held three summit meetings over the course of three consecutive months. Such an intensive top-level exchange is unprecedented in the postwar history of U.S.-Japan summit diplomacy since the 1954 meeting between Shigeru Yoshida and Dwight Eisenhower.
Immediately after assuming office, Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His administration has since imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Japan on grounds of national security concerns, and while the administration has put on hold imposing heavy tariffs on imports of cars and car parts from Japan while the two countries hold bilateral trade talks, the possibility remains of such tariffs being put in place.
With regard to North Korea, concern lingers that the Trump administration may be willing to strike a deal in which the U.S. agrees to a gradual curtailment of nuclear armament so long as the North agrees to stop its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Such a deal would veer away from the U.S. position of seeking full denuclearization, and could be seen as effectively accepting North Korea as a nuclear state.
A common thread throughout these episodes is the Trump administration’s logic of the “strong state” in which the administration turns its back on multilateral negotiations in favor of unilateral action or bilateral talks. Trump prefers a deal-oriented approach, in which he treats allies and non-allies alike as targets for pragmatic transactions. The administration appears to care little about the importance of the reliability that U.S. allies offer, or the development of trust that should be at the heart of any alliance. It is now apparent that this strategy poses a growing risk to Japan’s foreign policy.
The actions and policies of the Trump administration are upending the world order, and throwing the free, impartial and multilateral GATT system (the World Trade Organization and the World Bank) into turmoil. This threatens to obstruct the efforts toward a free, open and multilateral economic order in the Asia-Pacific region.
The administration’s ways also pose a threat to a global security framework that has been centered on the stability of U.S. alliances. This has weakened NATO, which has also been hit by Britain’s pending departure from the European Union. Meanwhile, the U.S. has yet to flesh out its strategy for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific , originally developed to serve as a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific.
Trump’s unpredictability in his approach to politics and diplomacy has further obscured U.S. strategic intentions, and increased the risk that the rest of the world will be tempted to follow his form of opportunistic foreign policy.
In his 2019 book “Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House,” Cliff Sims recounts Trump’s attitude toward denuclearization negotiations with North Korea: ” ‘Now they don’t know what to make of me,’ he said of the North Koreans. … ‘They don’t have any idea. No one does. And that’s a good thing. That’s how it should be.’ ” This “no one” includes Japan, and Abe himself.
In the 20th century, Japan’s foreign policy was shaken to its core by crises in U.S.-Japan relations resulting from major changes in the U.S. conceptual and ideological approach to the rest of the world. One such crisis was prompted by the Nixon administration’s reorganization of U.S. strategy, which resulted in a form of “power politics” diplomacy that focused on the balance of power. The specific triggers were President Richard Nixon’s normalization of relations with China as a means of containing the Soviet Union and his devaluation of the dollar to rectify U.S. deficits in the balance of payment with the rest of the world.
Nixon’s strategic reorganization, however, occurred within the framework of the Cold War and the GATT regime. With regard to security, Japan was able to adjust course by expanding its non-military role in security matters, while in the economic realm, Japan revalued the yen and voluntarily limited exports to the U.S. Together with the launch of the Group of Five and Group of Seven, Japan thereafter managed to maintain a stable supporting role within a trilateral structure that also included the U.S. and Europe.
At the heart of the U.S.-Japan relationship are the shared experiences and memories of how the two countries together created the great success story of the American century in postwar Japan. After its victory in the Pacific War, the U.S. rebuilt defeated Japan and transformed the former enemy into an ally that would support an American-led world order. As the historian Kenneth Pyle writes in “Japan in the American Century” (Harvard University Press, 2018), “our persistent belief in the United States as a chosen nation with a unique role in world history found its most elaborate fulfillment in the opportunity to remake Japan’s ancient and complex civilization.”
With the Cold War well behind us, the American century is also rapidly receding into the past. Just as in the prewar and postwar periods, the vital question with regard to the future of U.S.-Japan relations is that of how to confront and manage relations with China.
The Trump administration is treating China as a strategic rival, but it has not been able to indicate what type of relationship the U.S. ultimately intends to build with China. At present, the U.S. approach to China is more of an “attitude” than a real policy. Indeed, the Trump administration may never develop a true China policy, and could continue to approach the world with an “America First” attitude that is anti-China and increasingly ambivalent toward Japan.
Given the perilous future of U.S.-Japan relations, there is a surreal quality to the show of friendship between “Donald and Shinzo.” Indeed, the friendship between Trump and Abe reminds us of the words of the Cold War-era American diplomat and historian George Kennan, who first developed the theoretical argument for a strategic U.S.-Japan alliance. The current U.S.-Japan relationship reminds us of how Kennan described U.S.-Japan relations during the occupation led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur — as one of “unnatural intimacy.”
Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.