The Trump Presidency and Japan’s International Role


As the confrontation between US President Donald Trump and his country’s European allies heats up, Japan finds itself playing a more important role in international affairs. It should fight the challenges to the free trade system while taking care to maintain close ties with the United States.

It has been roughly a year and a half since Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States. The international situation has undergone dramatic changes during this period—mostly as the result of Trump’s own words and deeds. Here in Japan, at first many took an optimistic view of the prospects for the Japan-US alliance based on the close, friendly ties between Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and President Trump. More recently, though, this optimism has diminished considerably, and there are growing concerns that Trump may destroy the very core of this bilateral alliance

The Alarming Confrontation Between the United States and Europe

Japan is not the only country that is concerned about President Trump’s words and deeds with regard to foreign policy, which are unpredictable and diverge from the basic line that the US government has previously taken. The Group of Seven summit hosted by Canada on June 8–9 turned into a show of unconcealed discord between the United States and the other six participants—Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan—leading some to say the G7 had become a “G6 plus one.”

A photo taken at the summit on the morning of June 9 was emblematic of this split within the G7. It shows President Trump sitting at a table with his arms folded and a frown on his face as he looks at German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who stands across from him, leaning forward in an aggressive pose with her arms firmly planted on the table. The image went viral after being posted on Twitter by Germany’s Federal Chancellery.

Another emblematic feature of the photo is the posture of Prime Minister Abe, who is seen standing at the side of the table, positioned between Trump and Merkel; he appears to be taking a mediator’s stance. But there are limits to his ability to play this role in damping down the conflict between the United States and Europe. Now that Trump has gone on the warpath in trade policy, he is directing repeated sharp barbs at Japan for the growing US deficit in trade between the two countries.

The confrontation between Trump and European leaders became even sharper at the summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on July 11–12. The disastrous outcome of this NATO meeting revealed the serious fraying of the solidarity among the liberal democracies that has served as the basis for maintenance of the post–World War II order.

Trump has gradually come to link the issues of the US trade deficit and America’s alliances, and he has become increasingly dissatisfied with the huge burden America is bearing in order to defend its allies. Holding summit meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin, he has expressed praise for the leadership of these two strongmen and has sought to build friendly ties with their countries, both of which have taken hostile stances toward the United States. Meanwhile, he keeps directing contemptuous criticism at the allies who share America’s democratic values. This is a peculiar sort of situation, the likes of which we have never before seen in the decades since World War II.

Japan’s Growing Role as the Champion of Free Trade

In the face of this situation, Japan has responded wisely in two ways.

First, it has moved to strengthen its alliance with the United States despite the difficult conditions it faces. The security ties between the two countries have definitely become more solid since a major revision of Japan’s national security legislation came into effect in 2016. And the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” that was set forth in the United States’ new National Security Strategy issued in December 2017 is part of the long-term vision shared by Washington and Tokyo. Japan’s Defense Minister Onodera Itsunori and US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have developed a relationship of deep mutual trust, and over the course of the past year they have established a close partnership in response to the military threat from North Korea. The defense ties between the two countries have also grown tighter at the working level.

Second, Japan has assumed a leading role—while taking care not to alienate the United States—in strengthening the free trade system. On June 29 the upper house of the National Diet approved the “Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership,” or TPP11, thereby completing the ratification process for this 11-country pact. The Japanese government hopes that the remaining countries will similarly ratify the treaty so that it can go into effect by the end of the year. The negotiations were tough, but thanks to Japan’s patient efforts, an agreement was reached in the end. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised the “continued and extraordinary leadership” that Prime Minister Abe had displayed in bringing the TPP11 talks to a successful conclusion.

Also, on July 17, Abe held a summit meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office with the two top leaders of the European Union—European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker—after which the three signed the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement. This agreement will create the world’s largest free trade area, encompassing countries that account for about 30% of the world’s gross domestic product. Abe had originally been scheduled to visit Europe for the summit and signing ceremony, but he had to cancel his visit and stay in Japan to oversee the response to the disastrous rains that struck broad areas in the western part of the country early in July. As Abe could not go to Europe, the two EU leaders decided that they would visit Japan instead and sign the historic agreement in Tokyo. This was a highly unusual move, and it showed the EU’s strong commitment to the agreement with Japan and to the maintenance of free trade.

European Council President Tusk commented enthusiastically about the Japan-EU trade pact, declaring, “"It's a light in the increasing darkness of international politics.” As he put it, “We are sending a clear message that you can count on us, both Japan and the EU. We are predictable, responsible, and will continue defending a world order based on rules, freedom and transparency and common sense.” Prime Minister Abe presumably shares this enthusiasm.

Building a Stronger Japan-US Alliance

Unlike the EU, Japan is in a region that includes plural nuclear powers with aggressive intentions. It also has a number of territorial disputes with its neighbors. The United States is the only ally Japan has that is deeply involved in protecting its territory and that wields great influence on the future of regional security in East Asia. As long as our country’s geopolitical conditions and the regional power balance remain fundamentally unchanged, the value of our alliance with the United States will not diminish. In this respect Japan differs greatly from the countries of the EU, which are promoting increased cooperation among themselves in the security sphere. So it does not behoove Japan to imitate Germany and France in showing a confrontational posture toward the United States. What Japan needs to do is encourage the United States to resume its honored and respected role as the leader of the Free World.

Japan now faces an unprecedented problem in its foreign policy, namely, having to deal with an eccentric American president who is deviating greatly from his country’s foreign policy traditions. At the same time, it is being called upon to undertake a weightier role than ever before in international affairs. It needs to work in tandem with the EU to defend free trade and with NATO to maintain peace and stability in the international order. At the same time, it is incumbent on Japan to take a serious look at the existing shape of the bilateral security arrangements, which place the bulk of the burden on the United States, and understand the need for appropriate adjustments.

We must trust that the American people will once again recognize the great mission that their country has been granted and that the United States will return to a pragmatic foreign policy line based on its national interests. And when this comes to pass, we can expect that the Japan-US alliance will become stronger than before, with Japan playing a greater role in international affairs and with the two countries’ mutual security arrangements having been put on a fairer footing.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 24. Banner photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel confronts US President Donald Trump at the Group of Seven summit on June 9, 2018, as Japan’s Prime Minister Abe [center] and others look on. Photo courtesy of the German Federal Goverment/UPI/Aflo.)

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