Commentary / Japan

Abe wins, no matter what Trump does

by Robert D. Eldridge

In recent days, there have been unsubstantiated reports that U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed frustration with the Japan-U.S. alliance to those close to him. The story first came out of Bloomberg News and then was repeated widely by Japanese media outlets.

It is not clear if the story is true. White House officials and the U.S. State Department have denied it, as has Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, although it is not certain how he would know.

However, Trump subsequently openly expressed his frustration in an interview on Fox Business Television as he was leaving for the Group of 20 summit in Japan that “if Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III. We will go in and protect them with our lives. But if we are attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us at all. They can watch on a Sony television the attack.”

Despite these remarks, Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during their meeting in Osaka last Friday, affirmed the alliance is strong. This is being portrayed as a win for Abe, which of course it is, but he was set to win no matter how the matter developed, because the alliance is in fact stronger than ever. However, as Trump’s comments hint at, the alliance is also in constant need of repair.

This is not inconsistent. You can have a great car, but you still need to maintain it. A great house still needs occasional repairs. Similarly, relationships, like marriages — or alliances in this case — always need work.

Many people in Japan panicked in February 2016 when candidate Trump said to the effect that if Japan did not contribute more to the alliance, he would pull American troops out of Japan.

Trump was right when he said that Japan does not pay enough, and should pay more. Japan’s host-nation support, while large comparatively speaking, is small compared to what it gets — the greatest military in the world ready to defend its ally with no real reciprocity despite the word “mutual” in the name of the treaty. What’s more, practically all of the money Japan spends on host-nation support stays within Japan — construction contracts, employee wages (and tax revenue), utilities, etc. It is like a life insurance policy with a very low premium in which you are reimbursed at the end of the year. Sign me up.

However, candidate Trump was also wrong in several ways. First, he viewed the alliance and more generally the bilateral relationship in monetary terms, and not as a mutually beneficial marriage combining both the strengths and weaknesses of two great nations. Japan is an indispensable partner and friend of the United States, not simply a client who cuts checks.

Second, not only did candidate Trump have a wrong view of Japan, he also had a very outdated view of it. Trump had not been to Japan since February 1990, and still saw it as an “economic animal” of the 1980s. In Trump World, which sees things in black and white, or more accurately, in win/lose terms, Japan was a rival, a competitor. He was ignorant of what Japan had undertaken in terms of contributions to international security and governance over the past quarter century. Of course, there is much more Japan can and should do, but it is not the 1990-1991 Gulf crisis/war Japan that it once was.

It is very likely that Abe and others later educated Trump on America’s most important partner in the Indo-Pacific region if not the world. Japan’s efforts across the globe, especially those on the military front, have either complemented or closely mirrored many U.S. actions — many of which have worked for the greater good. You can’t place a monetary value on this.

But even if you tried to negotiate Japan’s paying more for the alliance, the U.S. side might end up having to refund monies in the end. Negotiations would have to be begun first not on how much Japan should pay, but first an analysis of how the money is being used today. The Japanese side would discover there is much waste on the U.S. side, and politicians will start asking questions as to why the Americans aren’t paying for things they should be.

One small example is of a car accident by a female U.S. personnel member on June 23 in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, that caused over ¥400,000 in damage to a bridge. She did not have insurance (which goes against the often-not-followed regulations) and in the end the Okinawa Defense Bureau will have to pick up the tab, which means taxpayers in Japan are actually paying for it. There are countless examples of this situation occurring.

As the analysis begins, there will be calls for revisions of the Status of Forces Agreement when the above holes in the agreement (or implementation thereof) become more apparent. Other holes will also become readily visible, as will examples of waste, fraud and abuse.

In addition to calls for revisions, therefore, there will be calls for refunds. Pretty soon, the U.S. side will be the one cutting a check. The “Deal Maker” will become the “Check Writer.”

But this sort of discussion is not necessarily a bad thing. Light can be shone on some of the darker parts of the alliance where the mold is growing or the termites are eating away at the foundation. It would lead to a re-examination of where things stand and the way forward.

During the past couple of years, the issue that candidate Trump raised never really came up publicly again. I was kind of hoping it would, as it would give the two countries and its peoples a chance to discuss the importance of the alliance to each other rather than leaving it on autopilot.

But I have to admit, I was a little surprised that the issue came up now, so soon after Trump’s successful visit last month to Japan as the first state visitor in the Reiwa Era to meet the new emperor. Perhaps he saw or heard something alliance-related at that time that reignited his earlier, original views. Or more likely it is meant to help him in his trade negotiations with Japan.

At this point, however, this sort of alliance discussion might actually help Abe in another way. Trump in his recent comments is calling for Japan to do more to defend the U.S., less in monetary terms and more in actual contributions. This actually plays into the prime minister’s efforts at constitutional revision, particularly with regard to Article 9. So much so that he might want to cut Trump a personal check, not for the alliance per se, but to thank him for his comments.

Robert D. Eldridge is a former political adviser for the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan and the author of over 70 books dealing with U.S.-Japan relations.