Donald Trump is, failing an electoral college miracle, going to be the next president of the United States of America. Countless words will be written about what that means for America, but as a resident of Japan and a scholar of Japanese politics, I’d like to talk a little about what a Trump presidency means for Japan.
This is a question whose implications extend far beyond Japan itself. While the UK (and Australia) make much of their “Special Relationship” with the USA, Japan has in many ways been America’s most steadfast and important ally in the postwar era. The security treaty between the two countries is a cornerstone of the geopolitical order and stability of East Asia; Japan’s development as an economic powerhouse, aided and abetted by the United States, created a bulwark against communism in Asia; its embrace of democratic values made it a template of Asian democracy in a century when that was often a rare commodity.
While Japan has generally viewed Republican administrations in the US as being more amenable to this relationship, the reality is that the US-Japan alliance – both the formal security alliance and the more complex mesh of economic and political arrangements that bonds the nations – has been supported and developed by both Republican and Democrat administrations since its origins in the late 1950s.
Donald Trump’s stated positions on foreign policy are a significant threat to that relationship. Trump’s statements throughout his campaign paint Japan not as a partner but as a global rival of the United States. He suspects Japan of currency manipulation to the detriment of the US, and explicitly opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal of which the US and Japan are the key players. He has also repeatedly railed against what he views as the United States being short-changed in its security arrangements with Japan, and has gone far beyond the US establishment – which has long pressured Japan to take a more proactive role in conflicts and peacekeeping efforts – by suggesting that Japan should arm itself with nuclear weapons to ensure its own security.
That platform blindsided the Japanese political establishment; it’s a blast from the almost-forgotten past of the 1980s, when Japan’s rapid development and aggressive overseas acquisitions spurred fears that it would overtake US economic dominance. However, it’s hard to say how much of the platform will actually make its way into US policy. TPP is almost certainly dead in the water, but what line the US will take on Japan’s supposed currency manipulation and on broader trade issues is unknown. The security alliance, meanwhile, is based upon a ratified international treaty which will limit the actions of even a US President with the House, Senate and Supreme Court all lined up behind him – but its implementation, and the scope of the security cooperation between Japan and the US, could certainly be influenced if the Trump administration takes the insular, isolationist approach to foreign affairs that seems most likely.
No matter what policy or structural changes ultimately result, however, a degree of damage has already been done. Alliances are not just built upon legal treaties; they also rely on relationships of trust and assurance – upon both parties believing, long-term, in the commitments made by the other. Moreover, in the case of security alliances in particular, it’s not just the parties to the alliance who have to believe in it; outside actors, looking on at the alliance, also need to believe that its commitments are firm and will be upheld if tested. If an outside actor feels that the alliance is a paper tiger – that its commitments would not be upheld under testing conditions, for whatever reason – it creates a flashpoint for conflict and a weakness in the structure that upholds regional or even global stability.
Trump’s election, after more than a year of anti-Japanese campaign rhetoric, will weaken both internal and external perceptions of the Japan-US alliance regardless of what actual policy changes result under his administration. The view of the USA as being an increasingly unwilling participant in the affairs of East Asia will only be enhanced by Trump’s similar reticence regarding America’s role in NATO in Eastern Europe; a narrative of US isolationism will take hold among geopolitical rivals who chafe at the existing order, including Russia and China.
That is a tremendously dangerous position for Japan to find itself in. From economic rivalry to unresolved wartime history issues, the country’s relationships with several of its neighbours are fractious – most notably with China, a burgeoning superpower with thinly veiled imperial ambitions that stokes anti-Japanese sentiment as a release valve for discontent among its populace, and with North Korea, a nuclear-armed failed state. This not a hypothetically dangerous position; in absolutely practical terms, Japanese planes and ships tangle with Chinese incursions into the country’s airspace and territorial waters on a daily basis, while North Korean missile launches become increasingly sophisticated and deadly with each passing month. The importance of the US in maintaining Japanese security in these regards is paramount. The US commitment to the defence of Japan deters China from escalating its confrontations into what it would expect to be a brief, glory-seeking conflict and seizure of Japanese islands. In an even more practical, nuts-and-bolts sense, the US’ AEGIS destroyers are an essential part of Japan’s missile shield, with the country’s own fleet, although more advanced than any comparable navy in East Asia, presently incapable of dealing with the latest generations of North Korea’s missiles without US support.
If China or North Korea view America’s commitment to Japan’s security as negotiable or softening, either party may attempt to test the waters in a way that could lead to a much broader and bloodier armed conflict. In anticipation of that, and reflecting Japan’s own dawning unease regarding America’s commitment to the alliance, it’s almost certain that the US establishment will now get its long-held wish, albeit in a way it never wanted or expected – with Japan pushing harder than ever to normalise and expand its military prowess in order to make up for perceived US weakness (or non-commitment) in the Asia-Pacific region.
Quite a few commentators on Japanese politics and policy would argue that this is a process which has already started, but as I’ve observed before on this blog, Japan’s military budget increases have actually been extremely limited in recent years, with the country continuing to treat the US alliance as the beating heart of its security arrangements. The possibility of a revision to the pacifist Article 9 of the postwar constitution, though desired by Prime Minister Abe and his inner circle, had looked very remote indeed – until Trump’s election. Now, it is guaranteed that America’s relationship with Japan and the depth of its commitment to Japan’s security would be a fiercely debated topic for the coming four years. Many moderates in Japan will likely conclude that while Japanese pacifism was wonderful while the country remained safe behind America’s shield, if that shield can no longer be fully relied upon (and if China and North Korea suspect that the shield is less impervious than it used to be) then Japan has an urgent, pragmatic need to arm itself, and to remove the legal restraints that might prevent its military from effectively defending the country.
It’s not just Japan’s security position and the likelihood of normalising its military role that will be heavily impacted by the Trump presidency. The Japanese government, assuming a Clinton victory, had sought to pressure the US on TPP by ratifying the deal this month, well ahead of the inauguration of any new president. With Trump taking the office, TPP is likely off the table, and with it goes one of the core pillars of Abenomics. How Japan will react is unknown, but it seems likely that the country will feel compelled to seek out alternative trade arrangements – a Plan B to shore up its troubled economic reform programme. A version of TPP negotiated between Japan and the other non-US signatories is one possibility. Closer ties with Russia are another, although Russia’s economy is something of a disaster and Japan’s bureaucrats may be worried about hitching their cart to that particular horse. A long-discussed Japan-EU deal might even be expanded, though for a full-spectrum deal, the EU wants Japan to look at things including abolishing its (grossly abusive and cruel) death penalty system, which would be a sticking point. None of these, though, would match the sheer volume of trade that would have been affected by the TPP’s liberalisation of the cross-Pacific trade between Japan and the US. Regardless of your view on TPP itself (personally, I think it’s a mess, with far too many self-interested parties involved in opaque negotiations that have ultimately yielded an over-complicated, ill-considered, under-researched and worryingly anti-democratic treaty – but it’s still probably better than the existing situation), this is a huge stumbling block for the plans for economic reform and recovery in Japan.
This is where we stand now, only hours after Trump was elected. We don’t know who his key appointments are, what his policies will be, or any other concrete detail – but when the USA sneezes, Japan catches a cold. Trump being President-Elect already has clear, powerful impacts on Japanese domestic and foreign policy. The country’s economic programme is facing a deep crisis. Meanwhile, the likelihood of “remilitarisation” (really, just a normalisation of Japan’s military to the same status as that of any other developed nation, but likely to stoke tensions in East Asia nonetheless) and constitutional reform just took a powerful shot in the arm. With Trump preparing to enter the Oval Office in January, Japan is for the first time since the 1950s being forced to consider that its future might not include a close US relationship – and that is, of necessity, going to yield a very different Japan.