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Japan’s Foreign Policy Options in the Trump Era
Discussion by Professor Nakayama

What are Japan’s foreign policy options in the Trump era? Toshihiro Nakamura, Professor of American Politics and Foreign Policy, Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University in Japan spoke about the topic on September 7 in a conference room at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The event was organized by the Council.

Nakayama pointed out that Japan has been facing four major challenges.

The first challenge is a dark side of globalization with climate change, trade shock in the financial market, and cyber pandemic space that are outcomes of the hyper-connectivity in the global sphere.

The second is regional challenges that Japan has been facing the threat from the Korean Peninsula and uncertainty of rising China’s direction.

The third is the domestic issues. Japan has hit by a series of natural disasters such as the Great Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 and earthquakes in Kumamoto to name a few. Japan also has a big responsibility to shoulder the 2020 Olympics. Japan is fortunate to have stable leadership by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and has no prominent populism movement.

The fourth is a serious challenge for Japan. The worries of Japan are how the U.S. engages in global affairs, how it sees Asia Pacific, and how the U.S. sees the US-Japan alliance.

Japan’s worries are drawn from Trump’s words during the presidential election. He called Japan as cheating on trade and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. He also said that he would withdraw from TPP.

On the other hand, Japan had a sense that more or less, things in the Obama era would be continued by Clinton.

The US-Japan relation was advanced between PM Abe and President Obama. As the U.S. President, Obama visited Hiroshima, and Abe visited the Pearl Harbor. The Abe administration established the National Security Council and enabled to exercise the right of collective self-defense. These were endorsed by President Obama.

Japan, however, had a little sense of worry because President Obama seemed to take a step from the alliance when he took actions on Syria and Crimea although Japan understood the issues were different from ones in the Northeast Asia.

Presidential candidate Clinton was an American power type of politician and the planner of the pivot and the rebalance to Asia. Japan could expect a better US-Japan alliance under Clinton’s leadership, but it didn’t happen, so Japan had to deal with President-elect Trump.

Just 10 days after Trump’s victory, PM Abe visited Trump Tower to meet him. PM Abe’s prompt action reveals how Japan’s anxiety was huge. The meeting somehow worked out, and Trump stopped tweeting about Japan.

However, the anxiety remained in Japan. A survey showed that 55% of Japanese thought US-Japan relations would be worsened under President Trump, and 84% said that his “America First” policy would give a negative effect on international affairs.

After President Trump’s inauguration, a favorable image of the U.S. decreased dramatically. Unlike in Europe, social phenomena such as anti-American or anti-Trump didn’t occur in Japan. It was because Japan has been facing issues on the Korean Peninsula and the uncertain rise of China, so Japanese leaders were unable to say, “Stop relying on others.” So Japan’s decision was “to adapt rather than to complain.”

Only 20 days after President Trump inaugurated, PM Abe went to see him. They dined five times and played 27 holes of golf together. PM Abe embraced President Trump without any hesitation, and the result was that President Trump gave PM Abe all the words that Japan wanted to hear.

Regarding the TPP, withdrawal of the U.S. is a big concern to Japan because it is not an economic matter but also a regional strategic implication. Japan wants the U.S. to return to it, but it is a difficult task. However, Japan has the MMT (Secretary Defense Mattis, National Security Advisor General McMaster, and Secretary of State Tillerson) on national security matters and Vice President Pence on the trade matter.

Now Japan is cautiously optimistic about the US-Japan relationship. In a survey, 70% of Japanese thought that Abe-Trump meeting had positive effects on the US-Japan relations, and PM Abe’s decision “adapt rather than complain” was supported by the public.

But why does Japan have to choose it? In addition to the danger in the Korean Peninsula and concerns on China’s uncertain rise, Japan’s conviction is China’s hegemonic ambitions, which Japan has strongly opposed as a detriment to Asia’s regional success. To defend the liberal international order, what can Japan do?

Japan’s Options

* Japan becomes a normal nation, which has a full-blown military power. It is rarely possible because there is no public support and no viable budget, and neighboring countries don’t welcome it.

* Japan fully embraces China and complies with pacifism as Japan’s constitution has indicated. The option, however, creates a security vacuum and becomes a source of conflict. It is not a realistic option.

* Japan does not have a regional security organization that Japan can trust. Japan can rely on the United Nation, and it is an important organization; however, the critical issue is that China possesses a veto power.

* Japan can make an alliance with other countries and has been strengthening security relations with Australia, India, and South Korea. However, other alliances do not replace the US-Japan alliance.

So the answer is simple. Japan’s only option and the best option is the U.S.

On the other hand, Japan has some states of worry although the US-Japan alliance is the best option. The trump administration has not organized a fully functional Asia team nor a comprehensive Asia Pacific policy.

The US-Japan alliance is not a standalone institution. From Japan’s view, it must synchronize with Japan’s Asia Pacific policy, but it is not there. From America’s view, it has to synchronize with American national interest as well.

American Interests on US-Japan Alliance

Future economic dynamics will be in the East Asia. The U.S. constantly has power in East Asia since the early 20th century; however, the power has been a functional one, not a physical one. Japan is a good partner for the U.S. to make a physical power in the region. Japan has been a stable democracy, has developed markets, and has shared values in its political system. An important fact is that there is no anti-American social movement in Japan. Moreover, The US-Japan alliance, which has a 60 year good record, has become the bedrock of peace and security of the region.

Japan’s option under the Trump Administration

Japan’s policy does not change under the Trump Administration and even more, works hard on the US-Japan alliance and persuades the U.S. to be a resident power in Asia.

Japan might be seen as too optimistic, but it understands that unpredictability is a part of the Trump foreign policy. Japan has a little concern about what happens if the MMT, Ambassador Haley, and Chief of Staff Kelly leave the administration, but Japan can do nothing about it.

From the view of the importance of the US-Japan alliance, whoever the president is, Japan’s decision is to embrace him fully.

As the conclusion, Professor Nakayama said, “Even in the Trump era, the fundamentals of Japan do not change, focus on or even double down on what we have been doing so far, and I guess this is the real realism for Japan and in the Trump era.”


Toshihiro Nakamura, Professor of American Politics and Foreign Policy, Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University