Author: Tsuneo Akaha, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
Even before US President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took steps to develop a personalised relationship with the new leader to put Japan–US relations on a sustainable trajectory. He has since held more than 40 face-to-face meetings and phone conversations with Trump — but has little to show for it.
Abe is concerned about the shifting balance of power in Asia — China’s spectacular rise, the United States’ relative decline, and Japan’s ‘lost decades’. Another element of change is Russia’s ‘pivot to the east’, a reaction to its deteriorating relations with the West over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Against this backdrop, Tokyo wants to ensure that the United States will be a stabilising regional force.
After gambling on Trump to help stabilise Japan’s security environment and protect its foreign policy and national security interests, Abe now faces the disturbing consequences of Trump’s unpredictable and disruptive character. The Trump administration has undergone top-level personnel changes of unprecedented frequency. The very legitimacy of his presidency is under question due to evidence of pro-Trump Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the Trump administration’s attempts to obstruct justice during subsequent FBI investigations.
Trump’s major policy decisions are equally unsettling. Under the banner of ‘America First’, Washington has unilaterally withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Iran nuclear deal, as well as renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement — all international agreements supported by Tokyo.
Unilateralism also characterises Washington’s approach toward Pyongyang, one of the most pressing problems for Tokyo. Trump has held three meetings with Kim Jong-un — in Singapore in June 2018, Hanoi in February 2019, and Panmunjom in June 2019 — but the two sides remain far apart on the core issue of denuclearisation. Abe stands alone as the only regional leader yet to meet the North Korean leader.
Abe is also taking steps to strengthen the Japan–US security alliance. Tokyo revised its long-established interpretation of Article 9 of its constitution so that Japan can engage in limited forms of collective self-defence in areas beyond Japan’s homeland, and lifted a ban on weapons and weapons technology exports. It has also agreed to expand purchases of US military equipment. This includes an additional 105 F-35 fighter jets, 42 of which are set to be deployed on a new aircraft carrier. Tokyo even deployed a US-made land-based ballistic missile defence system — ostensibly to defend Japan from North Korean missiles — that triggered Chinese and Russian protests.
These decisions are clearly in line with Abe’s long-held desire to strengthen Japan’s defence capabilities and play an international security role. They are also meant to bolster Japanese defences against China’s growing military power in maritime East Asia, a goal that underpins Japan’s partnership with the United States in pursuing ‘peace and freedom in the Indo-Pacific’.
But Trump has reportedly recently mused about ending the Japan–US security treaty, calling it an unfair agreement requiring the United States to come to Japan’s defence but not the other way around. The report alarmed and perplexed Japan, but Abe reportedly did not bring it up in his last summit with Trump on the sidelines of the G20 in June, nor did Trump volunteer any information on his remark.
On the trade front, the Trump administration unilaterally imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium imports — unleashing a trade war with China — and is pressing protectionist demands on Japan and other major trading partners. Japan currently enjoys a surplus of about US$68 billion in its bilateral trade with the United States, accounting for 7.7 per cent of the latter’s total trade deficit. China’s trade surplus with the United States stands at a whopping US$419 billion, or 47.7 per cent of US total deficit.
Tokyo stresses that its trade surplus is declining and that Japanese investment contributes significantly to the US economy. Japan’s investment in the United States in 2017 amounted to US$470 billion, second only to the UK’s US$541 billion. Japanese multinationals also generated 861,000 jobs in the United States, again second to the UK with 1,238,000.
Tokyo opposes unilateral protectionist moves and stresses the importance of multilateral negotiations for trade liberalisation, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), to which Tokyo hopes Washington will eventually return. Tokyo tried to deflect Washington’s demand for bilateral trade negotiations, but in April 2017 it reluctantly agreed to enter into bilateral talks. Japan has much to lose if these talks fail and the United States imposes its threatened tariffs on Japanese imports and demands further defence build-up.
Trump is likely to follow his instinct for transactional victories and, as the 2020 presidential election approaches, he will be tempted to seek any trade victory. Washington has postponed a decision on tariffs on Japanese automobile imports until after Japan’s Upper House elections on 21 July. But regardless of the outcome of the elections, it is likely that Trump will abandon this seemingly benevolent gesture after the Japanese parliamentary elections. Trump has tweeted that he is expecting his tariff threat will succeed in compelling Japan to make a major concession, particularly on Japanese imports of US agricultural products.
If this does happen, there is a good chance that Abe will be criticised as a misguided leader who gambled his nation’s key economic interests on the goodwill of an unpredictable partner across the Pacific.
What can Abe do to deflect such criticism? He could argue that Japan’s concessions are similar to the compromise his government had already made in the CPTPP. And if the LDP-led coalition achieves its expected victory in the July elections, he can continue with no serious challenger within his own party and ride out the criticism from the defeated opposition. In short, despite the unpredictable politics in Washington, Tokyo will remain a stable anchor of the bilateral alliance.
Tsuneo Akaha is Professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.