from Asia Unbound

Abe’s Trump Test

November 18, 2016

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Like many around the globe, Japanese are stunned by the election outcome and worried about what this means for the United States’ role in the world. Of particular concern, of course, are the comments Candidate Donald J. Trump made on the campaign trail about Japan, about trade, and about U.S. alliances. But what matters now is what President-elect Trump will do to reassure Tokyo that he values the U.S.-Japan strategic partnership.

Last night, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Trump in New York, and by all accounts it was a good beginning to what will undoubtedly be a long conversation on the U.S.-Japan alliance and the strategic challenges of Asia. Abe wasted no time in reaching out to the president-elect after the election to congratulate him, and to stop by New York on his way to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Peru. For Trump, this was his first meeting with a world leader, and media from around the globe watched to see how he would handle the scrutiny. For Abe, however, this was the first opportunity to test just how committed the president-elect was to his campaign rhetoric.

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Abe hoped that his personal touch, including the gift of a golf club, would dispel fears in Tokyo that Trump wanted to abandon the alliance. During the campaign, Trump suggested that Japan and South Korea should acquire nuclear weapons and deal with North Korea on their own. He also claimed there was no reciprocity in the alliance, noting that while the United States defends Japan, Japan does little for the United States. He asked why Japan’s 50 percent contribution to the costs of stationing of U.S. forces there could not be raised to 100 percent.

Since elected, however, Trump’s advisors have sought to reassure Tokyo on its support for the alliance. Even President Barack Obama joined in, noting that in his White House meeting with the president-elect it was clear that Trump valued America’s alliances. Trump himself tweeted that he never said Japan should have nuclear weapons. When questioned in the Diet on Thursday on his change of heart about the U.S.-Japan alliance, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso noted this flip-flop was "to put it kindly, flexible; or to put it unkindly, ignorant."

But in Tokyo, it was clear that Trump’s victory had triggered some of Japan’s leading defense policymakers to advocate for greater military self-reliance. In a November eleventh press conference, Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada said this election result "provided the opportunity to think more seriously about what Japan could do on its own to defend itself." Former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, a respected Liberal Democratic Party moderate, echoed her sentiments, arguing that this was "an opportunity for Japan to consider how to provide national security on its own." It is also worth mentioning that the Diet committee on constitutional revision resumed talks this week after a seventeen-month pause.

Equally concerning to Tokyo is Trump’s intention to retreat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The Abe cabinet invested deeply in the effort to conclude the twelve-nation trade pact, and Abe stood side-by-side with Obama in promoting the TPP abroad. Legislation needed to ratify the agreement is currently on the floor of Japan’s parliament, and in the wake of Trump’s victory, Abe has been bombarded with the anger of legislators who feel betrayed by the thought that the United States would just walk away from a hard won fight for trade liberalization.

Other foreign policy aims threaten Tokyo’s broader foreign policy interests. Japanese worry about the United States triggering a trade war with China, and about the overall protectionist tone of a Trump administration. Moreover, Japan has long championed multilateral agreements on nonproliferation and climate change; Trump’s antipathy towards the nuclear deal with Iran raises fears about further conflict in the Middle East and his desire to withdraw from the Paris Agreement climate change undermines a multilateral project that Japan has long championed.

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Two relationships that could change dramatically under a new Trump administration are also critical to Japan’s strategic interests. Abe will undoubtedly want to understand Trump’s thoughts on Russia and how this might affect his own diplomacy with President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to visit Japan in a few weeks.

Even more critical to Tokyo will be the U.S. relationship with China. Maritime tensions in the South China Sea have been on the top of the regional security agenda this year ever since the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) tribunal ruling [PDF] on Chinese claims challenged Beijing’s maritime and territorial rights in the Spratly Islands. Japan’s clash with China over the Senkaku Islands continues to hover over the U.S.-Japan alliance as Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval and air forces continue to test Tokyo’s resolve in the East China Sea. Trump said little about this in the campaign, worrying Tokyo that the alliance consultations on regional security crises might be deflected by his focus on a trade war with China.

Abe and Trump, in short, have much to discuss, and many more conversations between the two governments in the months and years ahead. But under the intense glare of global media coverage, this ninety-minute get-to-know-you chat at Trump Tower was neither the time nor place.

Abe went to New York to build a personal relationship with America’s president-to-be; Trump undoubtedly wants to put his best foot forward in this first foray into diplomacy. In his press briefing after the meeting, Abe was circumspect, thanking the president-elect for his time. On his Facebook page, Trump said, "It was a pleasure to have Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stop by my home and begin a great friendship."

Japan’s prime minister succeeded in drawing out President-elect Trump, but there is far more at stake. This is, after all, America’s most important relationship in Asia, an alliance that grounds the United States in an accelerating geostrategic reshuffle. President-elect Trump will need to consider how the United States can shape Asia’s future, and the U.S.-Japan alliance will be an invaluable asset. For Abe, the meeting was a high-risk gamble; had he confronted Candidate Trump, it could have intensified angst at home and provided greater opportunity for Japan’s increasingly well-armed neighbors.

More than a media moment, this was a significant test—of Trump’s new role, of Abe’s diplomatic skill, and ultimately, of the resilience of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

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