The Fate of Japan’s Alliance with Donald Trump’s America

Teshima Ryūichi [Profile]

[2016.11.12] Read in: 日本語 | ESPAÑOL | Русский |

The 2016 US presidential election came down to the wire, but ended with Donald Trump picked over Hillary Clinton as the next leader of the United States. The Japan-US alliance has been shaken by Trump’s campaign statements. What must be done now to keep it—and regional affairs—stable and strong?

New Administration as Threat to Alliance

Donald Trump’s election as the next president of the United States has come as a shock to many—not least the Japanese, who have stood firm in their alliance with America for more than a half-century.

Trump’s victory took place at a tumultuous time for East Asia, where an emerging China is seeking to establish itself as a naval power with advances into the East and South China Seas. The more that the Japanese people sense this newly aggressive Chinese stance, the more they realize the importance of the Japan-US alliance.

Throughout his presidential campaign, however, the Republican candidate has spoken doubtfully about the present state of this vital bilateral relationship, an act that has prompted a growing unease in Japan. If the United States came under attack, claimed Trump, Japan “doesn’t have to do anything” according to the bilateral security treaty. He seemed to suggest that the agreement should be renegotiated or scrapped—essentially saying that the United States should walk away from the alliance. We have never heard such explicit, over-the-top criticism of our bilateral relationship coming from the American political arena.

The Japan-US alliance serves to head off conflicts in the East Asian region before they begin. It also functions as a powerful deterrent against the nuclear arms held by China and North Korea. And the US military bases located in Japan are the vital linchpin in America’s strategic approach to Asia. But I suspect that even an explanation like this is unlikely to convince Donald Trump to change his tune on the alliance.

The End of the Superpower?

At their heart, Trump’s comments on Japan are a declaration that the United States should abandon its role as a superpower and the leader of the Western alliance. This would produce a tremendous strategic vacuum in East Asia, threatening considerable tumult as competing powers rushed to fill it with their own visions for the region.

While the United States and Russia faced off over the latter’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, China took the opportunity to construct seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, claiming sovereignty over everything within its “nine-dash line.” It is currently building a 3,000-meter runway on one of the islands to turn it into a military base. The weakening of the Japan-US alliance at a time like this has the potential to transform the twenty-first century into an age of unceasing turmoil.

I must note that Trump’s attitudes to women and other scandals have not damaged the prestige of a country as great as the United States. It is, rather, the cries of “America First” that are rocking the foundations of global trust in the nation, which has led the world since the end of the Cold War. This dangerous stance—the demand that Americans pursue their own interests at all cost—is like a powerful narcotic, exposing strains of isolationism and inciting a noxious form of nationalism.

Trump suggested on the campaign trail that Japan and South Korea should defend themselves without American help, obtaining their own nuclear weapons to counter the North Korean nuclear threat. He also claimed that Japan was not shouldering the cost of its own defense, depending excessively on the United States for its security.

But throughout the postwar era, there has been one American diplomatic and security policy that has remained unchanged, whether under Democratic or Republican administrations: that in Asia and Europe, respectively, Japan and Germany should absolutely not acquire nuclear arms. If these countries had their fingers on the nuclear button—something they could do with alacrity once the decision were taken—it would mean that the United States had abandoned its position as a superpower.

Trump, however, freely voiced his approval for countries like Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia acquiring such weapons. This poured fresh fuel on the smoldering debate in those nations about going nuclear. If Saudi Arabia, in particular, were to do so, it would force Israel to openly claim its own nuclear arms, inciting further proliferation among the countries in the Middle East. This would lead to a very real danger of the Islamic State group obtaining nuclear weapons. In retrospect, Trump’s statements may have been one factor behind President Obama, who speaks of the need to achieve a world without nuclear weapons, becoming the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima.

“Make America Great Again” was Trump’s slogan as he battled his opponents in the primaries and the presidential contest. To be truly great, though, America must be a leader that commands the respect of the world. If he wants to achieve his slogan’s goal, it will be most important for President Trump to work together with other nations that share the value of freedom. And the Japan-US alliance is a reliable cornerstone upon which to build a world where his goal can be achieved.

President Trump a Product of American Discontent

On the economic front, Trump insisted that the North American Free Trade Agreement had caused corporations to leave the country, taking quality American jobs with them. He claimed that a succession of new Chinese plants was being built on the other side of the Mexican border and that tariff-free goods from Chinese manufacturers were flooding into the United States. These words resonated with many listeners who believed his explanations for the high levels of blue-collar unemployment America has seen.

The real-estate magnate was elevated to the GOP candidacy thanks in large part to support from poor, white laborers who had mostly gone straight into the workforce from high school. In great numbers these people placed their trust in Trump as a man who could bring change to their conditions. And in the end, they were instrumental in propelling him all the way to the White House as the forty-fifth president of the United States.

In battleground states like Ohio, once a manufacturing stronghold, and Michigan, the heartland of the US automotive industry, these working-class white voters came out in force to support Trump. What was once a reliable Democratic base crumbled before all of our eyes. In January 2017, when the new president enters the White House, I hope one of his first priorities is to introduce economic policies to restore the health of the middle class. The economy will not regain its vigor with just tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. If he cannot win over that middle class with his policies, he will have no second term as president. And it must be stressed that wise economic policy from Washington is not just for the sake of the United States; it is essential for the stability of the entire international community.

Turning to the Democratic candidate, we can only wonder how it is that Hillary Clinton—with all of her name recognition, fund-raising skills, organizational backing, and policy acumen—was defeated by a real-estate dealer from New York.

As the election cycle entered its final stages, it became evident that chaotic new developments were afoot. This was something that I noted repeatedly in recent weeks. Clinton’s once-formidable election machine seemed to shudder with each new attack from the Trump camp.

When Director James Comey of the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that the investigation was still ongoing into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, it dealt a serious blow to her campaign, and she lost ground rapidly to a surging Trump. This is the media’s story about what happened, at least. But I think the truth is different. During a presidential election, all sorts of information is flung back and forth all the time. There is no way that a single revelation of something relatively harmless like this would have caused states seen as reliably blue to tip into the red one after another like they did.

As Election Day wore on we saw states like Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania become the key battlegrounds. Even New England Democratic strongholds like New Hampshire and Maine began shading toward the red. And when all was said and done, nearly all of these closely contested states had lined up behind the GOP candidate.

Waking Up from the Dream of Hope

Hillary Clinton appears to be a politician who performs poorly in the final phase of an election—something seen this time as well as in her 2008 loss to Barack Obama in the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries. I have thought this way about her ever since my time in Washington, when I had the chance to cover her up close. The sudden flare-up of the email server issue in the final days of this year’s race is a perfect example of this. At the same time, though, the email question was just one factor contributing to her defeat. The primary cause seems to have been the people’s dissatisfaction with the Democrats and with mainstream politicians of all stripes. The high hope of eight years ago that Barack Obama, this young, minority president, would bring real change to America was illusory in the end, and voters tasted despair in its place. Delivering a resounding defeat to the Democrats in 2016 was a way for the electorate to respond to their awakening from that dream of 2008.

There were signs of this awakening early on. Clinton faced an unexpectedly tough contest to win her party’s nomination as its grassroots members set their sights on Washington establishment figures like her. Young Democrats who struggled to even find the funds for study at public university rallied to the flag of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who represented the far left of the party. She tried to appeal to young people with policies that would support them, but with little effect. The discontent churning beneath the surface of the twenty-first century’s American electorate was truly potent, as Clinton learned from the grassroots rebellion against her ascendancy and, indeed, from the entire campaign, lasting well over a year.

Still, Hillary Clinton urged the people to support her attempts to break through the glass ceiling and become the first woman to lead the United States in its history. While I understand that women continue to face countless challenges as they try to play full roles in American society, I cannot help but feel that this directly delivered message on the need for a woman in the White House was somehow old-fashioned. And in clinging to it as she did, Clinton—who has walked a decades-long course through the halls of political power—may have inadvertently been describing herself as past her sell-by date.

Needed: Japanese Leadership

Turning back to President-elect Trump, we must consider whether his new administration will be one for Japan to welcome or one that will present our country with difficult circumstances. Japan’s media channels are overflowing with prognostications on this question. But this Japanese tendency to fret passively about whether a new US administration will be warm or cold to Japan’s interests, as though we are looking at the weather forecast to see which way the wind will blow tomorrow, is another major threat to the foundation of our alliance with the Americans.

Japan remains the third-largest national economy in the world, as well as America’s most important partner, bar none, in East Asia. This is why our country must be ready to chart its own path forward as it helps to forge the international order in this region. If we can make it clear that Japan is in a leadership position in this part of the world, the Trump administration will have no option but to retain the Japan-US alliance as the centerpiece of its Asian diplomacy in the years to come.

(Originally published in Japanese on November 10, 2016. Banner photo: Donald Trump gives his victory speech late in the evening of November 9 in New York City. © AP/Aflo.)

  • [2016.11.12]

Journalist and writer, specializing in diplomacy. Representative director of the Nippon Communications Foundation. After majoring in economics at Keiō University, worked for NHK from 1974 to 2005 in such positions as bureau chief in Bonn and Washington. Works include Tasogare yuku Nichi-Bei dōmei: Nippon FSX o ute (Twilight Approaches for the Japan-US Alliance: Shooting Down the Japanese FSX), the novel Urutora darā (Ultra Dollar), and the forthcoming Nanji no na wa supai, uragirimono, arui wa sagishi: Interijensu kijinden (Your Name Is Spy, Traitor, or Swindler: Intelligence Eccentrics).

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