Is Trump Still a Safe Bet for Japan?

Shinzo Abe and Donald Trump

As Donald Trump’s presidency signals a new paradigm for American politics, Japan faces tough questions about the future of its most important alliance.

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

It should be clear by now, if there was any doubt, that Donald Trump is determined to avoid running a normal presidency. Instead, his approach to the office is that of someone who plays to the crowd, looking for applause and retweets rather than policy accomplishments. Far from being simply a domestic political problem, this has undermined U.S. alliances and needlessly escalated crises. His response to North Korea’s test of a possible thermonuclear weapon was to scold South Korea and float the possibility that he would terminate the free trade agreement with the U.S. ally, playing to his base’s belief that South Korea is a free rider that’s taking advantage of the United States while appeasing North Korea.

It begs the question—what has Prime Minister Abe gotten himself into? Almost no foreign leader has done more to try to ingratiate himself with Trump, first meeting with the then President-Elect in New York shortly after the election, spending a weekend with him at his Mar-a-Lago estate, and speaking with him on the phone regularly. As the New York Times has noted, the Japanese leader remains reserved while many other foreign leaders are quick to criticize Trump. Abe may even be doubling down on the alliance.

The obvious answer is that Japan has no other choice. Japan’s fear of a rising China and a nuclear North Korea will always be greater than any fear of Trump and his politics. The greatest success of Abe’s outreach to this point has been to prevent Trump from following through on the threats he made regarding Japan during his campaign. Trump’s campaign statements on Japan were apparently more the result of a speech affectation than considered analysis and as a result have been relatively easy to contain. Markets and banks seem to believe any damage will be limited, at least judging by their initial responses to the prospect of another debt ceiling battle in December.

The worry isn’t day-to-day scandal; it’s that Trump may represent a systemic change in American politics

In a sense, the worst impact for Japan from the Trump presidency has already happened, namely withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership – but the U.S. response to North Korea’s nuclear tests (Japan is aiming for complete denuclearization rather than containment and deterrence) will be a continuing source of anxiety. With the September 3rd nuclear test and North Korea’s improving ICBM capabilities, it should be clear that North Korea will not surrender or constrain its nuclear program voluntarily. Yet the Trump White House continues to believe that the right amount of sanctions, taunting, and pressure from China will cause North Korea to change its calculus.

Looking to the long term, however, what should worry Japan isn’t the day-to-day noise of Russia investigations or Trump’s latest diplomatic misstep, but the fact that Trump may represent a systemic change in American politics. Whatever pretense U.S. politics may make of being business as usual, it won’t last for much longer. The two major political parties see one other as an existential threat to the country, raising the costs of bipartisan cooperation to prohibitive levels and incentivizing complete and total opposition. Goals, preferences, and tone will change radically from one administration to another, making the idea of any consistency between administrations – vital to effective international cooperation – into a fantasy. Much of any new administration’s early energies will be devoted to undoing the work of its immediate predecessor and fighting with Congress. Simply put, this new domestic politics will rob the United States’s capacity to be a global leader.

Constitutional change allowing Japan to become a “normal” security state remains politically unrealistic

How Japan can respond is an open question. Japan is taking a relatively independent course on international economic leadership, signing economic agreements with its regional neighbors and completing an economic partnership agreement with the European Union. These efforts play to Japan’s strengths and it will be absolutely necessary for the country to continue and deepen its efforts in this space to ensure that regional trade is liberalized and rules-based.

Adapting an independent course on security issues will be much more difficult. Japan’s options are tightly circumscribed by the “peace clause” of its constitution and for all the pearl-clutching fears of constitutional revision, amendments that would allow Japan to become a “normal” security state with forces capable of independently deterring North Korea or China are politically unrealistic. The financial cost of independent deterrence would also force Japan into some very difficult political choices given the concurrent burden of supporting a rapidly aging population. Meanwhile, Japan’s evasive approach to reconciling the atrocities it committed as an imperial power will continue to undermine the legitimacy of any expanded security role until the nation can better assure its neighbors that its imperialist days are firmly behind it.

It would be too dramatic to say that Japan will be forced to choose between complete security independence and contemplating vassalage in a Pax Sinica. Questioning Japan’s reliance on the United States isn’t new in postwar Japan and moments that seem ripe to ask Big Questions usually get brushed aside as the status quo reasserts itself. That the alliance will survive the Trump administration remains the most likely outcome, so Abe has made a safe bet for now. Whether the United States itself will continue to be a safe bet, however, is a question Tokyo needs to start asking of itself.

Explore more of our North Korea articles:

To Top