Commentary / Japan

Presidential election will define Japan-U.S. ties

With less than a year to go until the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3, 2020, the world’s attention has started to focus on whether President Donald Trump will be reelected for a second term or if one of the 15 Democratic candidates will prevail. The outcome will have profound implications, not only for the United States, but for the entire world, including Japan.

The candidates

Former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld have registered as Republican Party candidates to challenge Trump, but Trump will almost certainly be the nominee of the party. If something should happen that removes Trump from the race, likely candidates include Vice President Mike Pence, former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Utah Senator Mitt Romney.

Among the 15 Democratic candidates, the six who have the greatest likelihood of winning the nomination are (in alphabetical order) former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. This assumes that no new candidates will enter the race and that the Democrats will not have a “brokered” convention.

A Democratic front-runner may emerge next year after the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11, and Super Tuesday on Mar. 3. But the Democratic nominee may not be clear until the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on July 13-16. The Democrats’ chances of winning the 2020 presidential election will depend on (1) which candidate the Democrats select as their nominee, (2) what messages the Democrats will convey to the voting public, (3) what actions Trump will take; (4) the outcome of the impeachment investigation; (5) the economy; and (6) foreign influence.

Factors to watch

First, the six Democratic candidates I listed above can be characterized as moderate Democrats (Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar) or progressive Democrats (Sanders and Warren). The former fear that if Sanders or Warren end up as the party’s nominee, the Democrats may lose to Trump, as George McGovern lost to Richard Nixon in 1972 and as Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan in 1984. The latter believe that only with a fundamental structural change can America address issues of inequality, poverty and power.

Second, the Democrats’ message to the American voters will be determined by which candidate becomes the nominee. Biden’s campaign asserts that “America is an idea” and that “We’re in a battle for the soul of America” — implying a return to the pre-Trump era, when Biden was President Barack Obama’s vice president. On the other hand, Sanders advocates a “21st Century Economic Bill of Rights” that includes Medicare for all, a Green New Deal, college for all, housing for all, taxing the wealthy and workplace democracy that includes doubling union membership in the first term.

Third, the voters’ assessment of Trump will be affected by the actions he takes between now and the election. What new policies will he announce to win the support of voters? New tax cuts? New subsidies to help farmers? New trade deals to create jobs? New limits on immigrants to appeal to his base? A “deal” with North Korea that will allow him to declare victory and aspire for the Nobel Peace Prize? A conflict with Iran that he calculates will rally the nation around him?

Fourth, the impact on the election of the presidential impeachment process is uncertain. Although the House of Representatives on Dec. 18 voted overwhelming to impeach Trump (230-197 on abuse of power and 229-198 on obstruction of Congress), when and how the Senate will deliberate remains undecided. How this evolves, what new evidence emerges, and how this will influence the voters will affect not only the race for the White House but also whether Democrats maintain their majority in the House and Republicans maintain their majority in the Senate.

Fifth, the economy has been Trump’s strong suit. Despite his trade war with China and predictions by some economists of an impending recession, major correction or at least a slowdown, the macroeconomic data continue to show strong performance in GDP growth, unemployment and the stock market. Huge gaps in wealth and income persist, pockets of poverty remain and wage growth is weak, but the economic data at this point are favorable to Trump. If this should change, it will no doubt affect the voters’ assessment of the president’s performance.

Finally, an election factor that is difficult to assess is the impact of attempts by non-Americans to determine the outcome. U.S. government intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government intervened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to advantage candidate Trump and to disadvantage candidate Hillary Clinton.

According to some journalists and scholars, this Russian intervention was decisive in Trump’s victory. If so, there is a high probability that non-Americans (including Russians) may attempt to repeat this in the 2020 election. To what extent the U.S. is able to defend against this is uncertain.

The view from Japan

According to an opinion poll conducted by Gallup and Yomiuri Shimbun on Nov. 22-24, 76 percent of Japanese responded that “it would not be good for President Trump to be reelected in 2020.” This is consistent with polling results in other U.S. allied nations, since Trump is viewed by allies as unreliable, unpredictable and pursuing a self-interested “America First” policy.

But many Japanese leaders openly support Trump’s reelection. They believe that Trump has not been as disruptive to the U.S.-Japan relationship as had been feared based on his rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign. And they think that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been — with the possible exception of Russian President Vladimir Putin — the world leader most successful in bonding with Trump and gaining his trust. Thus, Abe is credited with successfully “managing” Trump as Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone did with Reagan in the early 1980s and as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did with U.S. President George W. Bush in the early 2000s.

This bonding has required a tremendous amount of patience, energy, and effort on Abe’s part. But it seems to have paid off — at least for now. Although Trump has imposed nominal tariffs on Japanese aluminum and steel exports and had U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer negotiate a bilateral agreement that tries to regain what the U.S. lost, especially in agricultural trade, by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump’s rhetoric on “getting tough” with Japan has been much louder than his actions.

This could, of course, change on a dime if Trump were to impose tariffs on Japanese auto exports to the U.S. on national security grounds invoking Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. And the Trump administration is reportedly demanding of Japan a four-fold increase, from $2 billion to $8 billion, in host nation support for the stationing of U.S. military forces in Japan. If this is a serious U.S. goal, as opposed to an opening negotiation gambit, it has the potential of significantly changing the Japan-U.S. security relationship as we know it. But for now, the continuity in the bilateral relationship under Trump has overshadowed the changes, despite what Trump threatened during the campaign of 2016.

As viewed by Japan’s leaders, Abe has invested so much into his relationship with Trump that having him stay as president for another four years is preferable to having to deal with a new Democratic president with little or no connection with Japan. In other words, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

When former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon visited Japan in March, he conveyed the following messages to Japanese political and business leaders: (1) Trump will almost certainly be re-elected in November 2020, so Japan should treat him well; (2) the LDP should change its party rules to allow Abe to serve a fourth three-year term as prime minister; and (3) with Trump as president until 2024 and with Abe as prime minister until 2024, the U.S. and Japan can cooperate to contain China. These messages were greeted with enthusiastic applause by many of the LDP politicians who had gathered to hear Bannon speak.

Trump’s policies toward China and Russia could not be better for the Japanese leadership. The U.S. trade war with China has forced Chinese President Xi Jinping to reach out to secure new friends and allies, and Japan has been a major beneficiary. The two countries are making preparations to ensure a successful state visit to Japan for Xi this spring.

And Trump’s friendship with Putin means that, unlike Obama, who frowned on Abe cozying up to Putin, Abe is able to pursue his Russia policy with no complaints or interference from the U.S. And on revising the Constitution, a top priority for Abe, there is no world leader who would be as supportive as Trump, who has repeatedly goaded Abe to increase military expenditures by asking, “What ever happened to Japan’s samurai spirit?”

Prospects

U.S. presidential elections are notoriously difficult to predict. One year before the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, few Americans thought he would even be the nominee of the Democratic Party. One year before the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, he was not among the top Democratic candidates. One year before the election of Barack Obama in 2008, he was 15 points behind Hillary Clinton. And on election day 2016, the New York Times predicted that the probability of Hillary Clinton winning was 85 percent.

Therefore, at this point, only a fool would predict the outcome of the Nov. 3 election. However, the probability of a Trump victory may not be as high as many Japanese leaders presume. Also, although in the short term a Trump reelection may redound to Japan’s benefit, the long term consequences may not be so favorable. Trump’s reelection will almost certainly result in a reduction in America’s commitment to and presence in Asia. The implications for Japan are profound.

Glen S. Fukushima is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. He served as deputy assistant United States trade representative for Japan and China and as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

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