The US-Japan security alliance—one of the most significant of its kind in modern geopolitics—has been critical to stability in the Asia-Pacific region for decades, serving to reconstruct Japan in the wake of World War II and provide the groundwork for US activities abroad. With the election of Donald Trump, whose campaign was filled with anti-Japanese rhetoric, many had legitimate concerns that he would undo the progress made in US-Japanese relations during the Obama administration. Fortunately, over the last couple of months Trump has seemed to shift from his inflammatory campaign rhetoric to a more inclusive and constructive approach toward US-Japanese relations. The shift toward closer relations with Japan is welcome, and parties on both sides of the Pacific should work to solidify their alliance moving forward.
The US and Japan formalized their alliance during the US occupation and ensuing reconstruction of Japan in 1951, which guaranteed Japan’s protection and US geopolitical power in the Asia-Pacific. As Japan rebuilt, the alliance expanded throughout the Cold War in reaction to China’s ascent in world politics and the nuclear ambitions of North Korea; more recent events, such as US-Japanese cooperation in coordinating the Iraq War and responding to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake disasters, have further reaffirmed the alliance as a vital part of US foreign policy and Japanese security.
The relationship between the US and Japan became stronger during the Obama presidency, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe actively worked to develop increasingly close ties with the US since the beginning of his second term in 2012. Abe expanded the US military presence in Japan and continues to seek out possibilities for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to engage in military actions in support of US interests, although these policies have provoked domestic controversy. Additionally, Abe found Obama’s support for Japan’s increased claims to territorial ownership of the Senkaku Islands, a recurring point of tension between China and Japan in the Asia-Pacific. The duo also made considerable progress on enhancing economic ties and establishing joint leadership in the Asia-Pacific market through the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
In terms of political ideology, Abe and Obama are distinct characters. Abe is a Japanese conservative nationalist; Obama is an American left-leaning Democrat. Despite these differences, Abe and Obama reaffirmed and strengthened the US-Japan security alliance. Obama even supported Abe’s push for major revisions to Japan’s postwar constitution as a means of reasserting Japanese authority in the Asia-Pacific. In May 2016 Obama visited Hiroshima with Abe to remember the city’s horrific atomic bombing, becoming the first American president to do so. On the other side of the coin, Abe visited Pearl Harbor towards the end of 2016 with Obama, reflecting on Japan’s imperial past. Although both leaders adhered to political norms by refraining from openly apologizing for their nation’s past actions, Abe and Obama conducted these visits despite hefty cultural opposition at home, a testament to their tried and tested relationship.
For Abe, the new Trump presidency seemed to pose a bevy of difficulties and to contrast sharply with previous bilateral relations. Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump attacked Japan on both economic and military grounds. He criticized Japan for not paying for its own protection and derided the supposed unfairness of the US-Japan security alliance—even suggesting that Japan explore nuclear weaponry capabilities of its own as an alternative safety measure. Trump warned that, if Japan refrained from reducing the US’s trade deficit and did not take greater responsibility for its own safety, the US could consider downscaling its commitments and presence in the Asia-Pacific. Such a move, if it were actualized, would have undone the diplomatic work accomplished by Obama and Abe, not to mention generations of American and Japanese post-war leaders. It would have set back the prospects of geopolitical stability in the Asia-Pacific by allowing powers like North Korea to impose themselves.
Some of Japan’s concerns have materialized over the last hundred days: for example, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) just days into his presidency, even though Obama and Abe poured considerable effort into the initiative. Trump has opted for a more protectionist approach to economic relations in the Asia-Pacific, a re-evaluation of US policy that is substantially less beneficial to the Japanese economy and reduces the US-Japan partnership’s international legitimacy (at least in Abe’s view).
More broadly and luckily for Abe, Trump’s attitude towards Japan has shifted since the presidential election, signaling the likelihood of a continuing bright future for this vital relationship. For the most part, Trump has pivoted away from the worrisome campaign rhetoric that drove geopolitical concerns in Japan. At a February meeting at the White House, Trump noted, with Abe at his side, that “the US-Japan security alliance is the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Pacific region” and that “bilateral cooperation is essential” in the face of pending geopolitical obstacles. Abe pledged to “contribute to President Trump’s growth strategy” economically and further strengthen the two countries’ alliance wherever possible. The joint statement proved successful for Abe’s domestic political image: according to a Kyodo News poll, approximately 70 percent of Japanese respondents approved of Abe’s initial talks with Trump at the White House in DC and later at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where the two traveled shortly after meeting in Washington.
Much has been made of the awkward nineteen-second handshake Trump and Abe shared during the Japanese leader’s visit to the White House, with Abe showing visible signs of relief when Trump let go. But perhaps the handshake is symbolic of Abe’s broader relief, as his trepidation was alleviated during his White House meeting. Trump had changed his tune on Japan, an encouraging sign for the future of the US-Japan security alliance and Abe’s ability to continue pinning his political capital on his relationship to the White House. Despite the unpredictable and unorthodox approach of the Trump administration, Abe’s goal to strengthen ties to the American president is succeeding. In fact, during his visit to the US, Abe visited several Trump-owned properties (including a golf outing), which would seem to indicate that the duo are building a strong personal relationship. With Japanese security and US interests in the Asia-Pacific on the line, Abe can hardly afford to fail to cultivate that type of relationship, regardless of what he or the Japanese government think of Trump as a political character.
The Trump administration repaid Abe’s visit when Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Japan as part of a tour of the Asia-Pacific region in mid-April. According to Liam Carrington, who was involved in planning logistics for Pence’s trip and accompanied Pence during his time in Japan, Pence highlighted pressing economic and geopolitical concerns for Japan and the US:
“The American Embassy considers his visit a success … The highlights were the meetings with Taro Aso, PM Abe, his visit with his family to Sensoji Temple, his visit to the USS Ronald Reagan, his meeting with Japanese business leaders on how to create a more favorable business climate in the US and Japan. The main policy points he advocated were dealing with trade deficits, cutting taxes for American and Japanese companies and reassuring the Japanese government that the US stands ready against the North Korean threat.”
Given the Trump administration’s commitment to an ‘America First’ approach, the two sides will have to adjust their economic relations. One area of concern for Trump is the US’s trade deficit with Japan, which totaled approximately $68.94 billion in 2016. That number will undoubtedly have to be reduced if good relations are to continue; indeed, Trump signed two executive orders in early April ordering a review of US trade deficits with several countries, including major allies like Japan. If the Trump administration increases the pressure on Japan to buy American products, Abe and other Japanese leaders in government and business should acquiesce to those demands, given Japan’s keen interest in maintaining improved diplomatic relations with their closest and strongest ally.
On the topic of regional security, which both Trump and Pence addressed with Abe, the authoritarian state of North Korea is a matter of great concern, given the two nation’s geographic proximity but decidedly divergent national directions. The Trump administration received criticism from the media and the American public for its brazen tackling of the North Korean issue, with Trump recently commenting that he would be “honored” to negotiate with Kim Jong-Un—who he also called a “pretty smart cookie”—given the “right circumstances.” Trump’s words should give Japan—and all of us—pause. Vice President Pence also unequivocally affirmed the US’s willingness to counter any potential North Korean aggression in the Asia-Pacific with “an overwhelming and effective US response” while speaking aboard the USS Ronald Reagan at Yokosuka Naval Base. Considering the extreme isolationist policies posited by Trump in earlier months, Abe and the Japanese government ought to be elated by the Trump administration’s commitment to regional security to ensure the continued success of the US-Japan security alliance over the next four years.
Japan’s security position in the Asia-Pacific is as delicate as ever, but Abe and the Japanese government can rest assured that Trump’s administration will continue to stand behind Japan and push for harmony in this unpredictable but critical region of the world.
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