CANBERRA – In his forays abroad, U.S. President Donald Trump resembles a bull carrying his own china shop on his back, to be set down for wrecking at diplomatic confabs. On Iran, as noted by former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, soon Trump will come to a fork in the road to Tehran where he must choose between a diplomatic climbdown on his impossible demands or war, with regional and long-term consequences worse than the damage wrought by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Coming in to land for his state visit to the United Kingdom on June 3, Trump fired off offensive tweets about London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who on June 1 had likened him to 20th-century fascists and labeled him “one of the most egregious examples of a growing global threat.” Trump called him “very dumb and incompetent” and saying he had “been foolishly ‘nasty’ to the visiting” president of the U.K.’s “most important ally.” Khan’s office responded that “childish insults … should be beneath the president.”
Little wonder that in a leaked confidential memo, British Ambassador to the U.S. Kim Darroch — who has now resigned — described the Trump administration as “dysfunctional,” “unpredictable” and “diplomatically clumsy and inept.”
Trump had given forewarning during the 2016 presidential election of being strategically challenged. Candidate Trump thrice asked a foreign policy adviser: If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them? In a New York Times interview in 2017, Trump suggested that with a weakening U.S. deterrent, Japan and South Korea could get their own nuclear arsenal to protect themselves from North Korea and China because America “cannot be the policeman of the world.”
Shortly before heading to Osaka for the Group of 20 summit at the end of June, Trump reportedly ruminated about terminating the defense treaty with Japan because of its unfair allocation of burdens between the two countries. The Japanese are unlikely to have been amused by his musings, especially as the 1951 treaty was drafted by the victorious U.S. to define the terms of the relationship with defeated and occupied Japan. On June 26, in a TV interview (with Fox News, of course) Trump remarked that an attack on Japan would obligate the U.S. to launch World War III and cost many U.S. lives and much U.S. treasure. But if America was attacked, the Japanese could just sit back and watch it on a Sony TV.
As Princeton University’s Gary Bass wrote in The New York Times, Trump’s “strategic cluelessness and historical ignorance … would disqualify a person from even a modest desk job at the State Department.” Trump’s “ignorant, ungrateful and antagonistic” approach would also be personally offensive to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe whose maternal grandfather, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, signed the revised security treaty in 1960. Abe has invested more heavily than any other world leader in cultivating s personal relationship with the famously mercurial and notoriously fickle Trump.
What are the sophisticated, cultured, polite but increasingly edgy and flustered Japanese to make of all this? Will they respond by doubling down on the alliance with the U.S., seek some manner of modus vivendi and accommodation with China, begin quiet preparations for an independent nuclear deterrent, or all of the above?
The rise of China increases the importance of the Japan-U.S. security treaty. A healthy alliance with the U.S. is insurance for Japan against North Korea and China. Equally, however, good relations with China are a hedge against an unreliable U.S. ally in the future. The fear of abandonment by the U.S. is a powerful and constant undercurrent in Japanese foreign policy.
Yet the stark reality is that Japan is the linchpin of the Pacific security order and a critical component of the U.S. rebalancing strategy for a stable Indo-Pacific region. Japan may be a declining power in the 21st century, but it still is and will remain for some time yet a “consequential power.” Abe was the first leader to introduce the conceptual vocabulary of a free and open Indo-Pacific as a way of integrating geography, geopolitics, democratic political values and freedom of navigation around the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Speaking at a function in Washington in February 2013, Abe memorably declared that Japan was back: “Japan is not, and will never be, a tier-two country.” With advanced military forces and an increasingly active approach to regional security, the most technologically advanced, richest and best educated country in Asia cannot be written out of any equation.
An unintended consequence of Trump’s promiscuous weaponization of tariffs and sanctions to prosecute proliferating U.S. trade disputes is to increase Japan’s leverage at the intersection of international economics and global geopolitics.
Japan’s large capital reserves, financial sophistication and technological cyber-resilience capabilities have been unexpectedly elevated in geopolitical importance.
In an important analysis on April 22, Mike Bird of The Wall Street Journal noted that while China’s “Belt and Road” initiative hogs the world headlines, Japanese private sector-led overseas investments are bigger than China’s ($1.67 trillion and $1.54 trillion, respectively, in the third quarter of 2018), more effective as tools of development, more high-end in infrastructure investment, and tainted neither by suspicions of geopolitical motivations nor fears of debt diplomacy.
Rising tensions between China and the U.S. have put Japan in a uniquely privileged position vis-a-vis both countries.
Beijing needs assured access to Japanese trade, investment and markets to offset hostile U.S. capriciousness. For its part, Washington cannot ignore Japan’s potential to check China’s growing maritime, economic and technological influence in the Indo-Pacific region. In addition, Abe has worked hard and successfully to build personal and bilateral relations with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The impact of Trump as the Pacific (and liberal international) order’s disrupter in chief has to be assessed against this context. He continues to be widely criticized for erratic and impetuous decision-making without the minimum groundwork having been done in advance by officials; for lack of experience, expertise and grasp of foreign affairs exacerbated by a hollowing out of State Department capacity through rapid churn and unfilled positions; for a purely transactional approach that ignores critical cross-issue linkages and robs U.S. foreign policy of strategic coherence; and for partiality to authoritarian strongmen and disdain for allies that has emboldened rivals, disheartened allies and confused potential friends.
Ramesh Thakur is an emeritus professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. This is a revised version of an article published July 3 on the Pearls and Irritations website.