What might happen to U.S. foreign policy, in particular its alliance in East Asia, under the leadership of incoming President Donald Trump? Japan faces an increasingly complex security landscape in East Asia. The Trump presidency could make it more uncertain and more unpredictable.
First, North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities now pose a direct threat to Japan and its nuclear capability will probably be further upgraded to be able to hit the continental United States sometime during the Trump administration.
Sanctions don’t appear to be able to stop North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s military ambitions because he believes a nuclear deterrent is the most reliable and perhaps the only guarantee of his regime.
As the threat of his nukes becomes real for the U.S., the Trump administration will have to put it on the foreign policy front burner. Problems, however, could arise from both remarks made by Trump that criticize China for not curbing the North’s ambitions and his preference for bilateral deals including, as he suggested, deals with Kim over a hamburger.
The uncertainty of Trump’s “business-deal diplomacy” is casting a pall on Japanese and South Korean security interests. Despite South Korea’s present political paralysis, the trilateral consultation among the allies is critical to cope correctly and timely with North Korea’s growing threat. And Japan has an additional issue to resolve — the abduction of its citizens by North Korea.
Second, China’s rapid rise and its increasing assertiveness pose daunting challenges of diplomacy and security for the allies and partners of the U.S.
Tensions with China over the Senkaku Islands are raising widespread concern in Japan. China has continued to send government vessels and aircraft into the region. President Barack Obama declared, “Our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, and Article 5 covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands.” His remarks are critically important to peace in Japan and stability in the region as the Japan-U.S. alliance could deter military action against Japan, including the Senkaku Islands. What will occur if Trump doesn’t follow Obama’s policy of mentioning them?
Third, the status quo in the South China Sea has also been gradually changed by China’s “salami-slicing” tactics of taking steps that fall below the threshold of a strong response by interested parties such as the U.S.
The few “freedom of navigation” operations conducted by the U.S. Navy didn’t stop unilateral Chinese actions such as large-scale land reclamation and militarization activities in the South China Sea.
At an international workshop I attended recently, a Chinese scholar asserted, “Japan is too active in the South China Sea.” I responded by saying: “I know President Xi Jinping is resentful of Japan’s involvement in the dispute. Nevertheless, Japan must be active because it depends greatly on foreign trade, in particular, the import of natural resources and energy — most of which are shipped across the South China Sea. The safety of sea lanes and freedom of navigation are of the utmost importance to the survival of Japan. Open, rule-based order in the region is critical to Japan’s national interests.”
Given such security circumstances, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been successful in convincing the majority of citizens to support and strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Both are increasingly regarded in Japan to be an invaluable asset and the linchpin of peace and stability in a geopolitically changing region.
However, Trump asserted that the U.S. would withdraw from the TPP on his first day in the White House. Per the rules laid out in the TPP, a U.S. withdrawal renders the TPP invalid. Nonetheless, Japan ratified the treaty. That is a strong message to the U.S. and the world that Japan will resist protectionism and promote free trade.
During my visit to the U.S. after the presidential election, I heard a frank view from American scholars that gaiatsu (foreign pressure) would need to be used on the U.S.
That word inspired me with an alternative way to help the treaty survive: The TPP’s other 11 member states should work on modifying the rules governing the trade pact’s enforcement to put stronger pressure on the U.S. At present, however, these member states will likely lose motivation to do so if the world’s largest economy withdraws from the treaty. Their attention appears to be turning to the proposed Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership free trade agreement, which China is eager to realize.
Japan should strengthen dialogue with these members from the strategic viewpoint that they and the U.S. will be engaged on a potential pathway to achieve the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, hoping that China will also join by deepening its economic reform to meet the high-standard criteria.
As for security, there are no other security frameworks besides the U.S.-Asia alliance network to maintain the open, rule-based international order in the region.
Abe’s trip to Pearl Harbor hosted by Obama sent a message of the importance of the alliance to Trump, as well as other messages, including the power of reconciliation through forgiveness, to the Asia-Pacific region. Hopefully Trump will understand the pivotal role of the Japan-U.S. alliance in the region and Japan’s fair contribution to it.
In this regard, it would be politically ideal and economically effective if both leaders would commit themselves to the Japan-U.S. alliance and publicly declare their commitment at a meeting held at the earliest possible date after Trump’s presidential inauguration on Jan. 20.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Japan should put the relationship with China on the back burner. The management and improvement of bilateral ties with China will be another prioritized diplomatic agenda for Japan’s vital national interest in 2017, which marks the 45th anniversary of the normalization of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations. Abe should strive to tackle this difficult but important challenge as a “proactive contributor to peace.”
Masahiro Kohara is a professor at the University Tokyo’s Graduate School of Law and Politics.