For Japan, the coming months look like a tricky time for managing its alliance with the US. In Washington, Tokyo seems to be flying under the radar for now. Yet collateral damage from the US president’s addiction to disruption, and the threat of serious damage to its global economic interests, cannot be discounted, writes Sheila A Smith.
A year and a half into the Trump presidency, US foreign policy seems to have settled into a state of persistent flux, with its longstanding diplomatic relations turned on their head. Allies have been dubbed adversaries, and adversaries described as friends. The NATO summit reflected greater tension than the meeting between the US and Russian presidents in Helsinki, despite the National Security Strategy’s cautious tale of a rise in major power rivalry.
Around East Asia, the Trump administration’s roller-coaster atmospherics have been on full display. With North Korea, threats of war abruptly morphed into the Singapore summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. With China, Mr Trump’s cosy dinners with President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago and Beijing last year shifted into a bidding war of escalating tariffs. South Korea has suffered through the renegotiation of a sensitive trade agreement — even as it waits amid rising domestic outrage to see whether the Trump administration will call out automobile imports as the next target of national security protections.
Interestingly, the US-Japan relationship seems to have avoided much of the dislocations other relationships have experienced. The bond between Mr Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems relatively strong despite somewhat abrupt shifts in policy. North Korea’s accelerated missile tests in 2017 drew Mr Abe and Mr Trump into a close rapport, beginning with Pyongyang’s decision to launch multiple missiles in the direction of Tokyo just as the leaders were meeting in February that year. In the absence of a president in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington called the shots early on in the alliance’s response to the growing tensions in and around the Korean peninsula. By year’s end, Mr Abe and Mr Trump had had more than 20 direct conversations on how to manage the diplomatic and military response to the heightened threat from the North.
Security cooperation was again the focus when Mr Trump visited Tokyo in November 2017. The President visited US and Japanese military personnel at Yokota Air Base and discussed Japan’s purchase of new armaments from the United States to shore up its defences against North Korea. But Mr Trump’s economic ambitions were not far from the surface. In their joint press conference, Mr Trump lauded Mr Abe’s decision, saying, “It’s a lot of jobs for us and a lot of safety for Japan.”
On the economic front, the United States and Japan have made little progress in finding common ground. Certainly, Japanese foreign direct investment in the United States supports the Trump administration’s priorities on job creation – Japan now has the second-highest foreign direct investment position in the United States, after the United Kingdom. New energy purchases by Japan are also expected to contribute to reducing the $56.5 billion trade deficit. But the new US penchant for tariffs has not left Japan unscathed.
Despite efforts to keep the US-Japan partnership on an even keel, the Abe cabinet has been set back by unannounced shifts in Trump administration policy. On trade, no prior warning was issued regarding the application on March 23 of US tariffs under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Acton steel and aluminium imports on the grounds that they threaten national security. The tariffs could affect about $2 billion of Japanese exports to the United States.
Similarly, the Abe cabinet had little warning of the announcement made by South Korean officials on the White House lawn on March 8 that the US President had agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un. This surprise prompted yet another trip to the United States for Prime Minister Abe to emphasise Japan’s interests in any negotiations that might result. Fast forward to the summit on June 12, and the Japanese government was clearly taken aback by the President’s statement that US-ROK ‘war games’ would be ended because they were ‘provocative’ and ‘cost too much’. Deterrence had been diminished too easily and without much thought.
Considerable hurdles loom on the horizon as 2018 draws to an end. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will decide whether to keep Mr Abe as its leader. While expectations are running high that Japan’s conservatives will stick with Mr Abe, the campaign is expected to raise some difficult issues for the alliance. In October 2017, Mr Abe led the party’s campaign in the lower house election by trumpeting its foreign policy credentials and the prime minister’s ability to manage the North Korea issue. Implicitly, Mr Abe’s relationship with Mr Trump seemed Japan’s best bet. But there are others in the LDP with considerable security and foreign policy expertise, and they will want to press the prime minister on whether Mr Trump’s negotiations with North Korea are truly reflecting Japan’s interests.
The Japanese government will need to make some decisions by year’s end on its defence priorities. A new defence plan is due, accompanied by a five-year procurement plan, and the extent to which Japan invests in greater military integration with the United States remains to be seen. Can the United States still be relied on, or should Japan hedge its bets on its own capabilities?
In the United States, midterm elections are already consuming the White House, leaving little room for foreign policy and strategic leadership in Asia. The United States will be all but absent as Japan looks out at its rapidly shifting regional dynamics. The two Koreas plan another summit – one that could see further reduction in military tensions and a rhetorical embrace of peace on the peninsula. Tokyo seeks greater progress in the warming of its relations with Beijing, and perhaps a summit could be on the horizon. Meanwhile, Washington is upping its trade war with China and threatening further tariffs on its allies, this time on the global auto industry.
For Japan’s prime minister, be it Mr Abe or a challenger, the coming months look like a tricky time for managing the alliance with Mr Trump. In Washington, Tokyo seems to be flying under the radar for now. Yet collateral damage from the US president’s addiction to disruption, and the threat of serious damage to its global economic interests, cannot be discounted. Even the alliance that has weathered the Trump era best is not immune to its growing liabilities.
Sheila A Smith is senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This commentary first appeared in East Asia Forum.