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Japan Trumped: Hoping Against Hope


Donald Trump (SNA)

SNA (Tokyo) — Tokyo was caught flatfooted by the victory of Donald J. Trump in the November 8, 2016, US presidential race. The Japanese media revealed that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was “angry” at the Foreign Ministry, no doubt because they had assured him that Hillary Clinton was going to be the next US president and he had not prepared for the alternative.

Indeed, Abe had actually met candidate Clinton in September, but had made no attempt to arrange a meeting with Trump. Reports several days before the US elections indicated that Abe was planning a summit with the expected President Clinton in late February, but was “likely to be cautious” if Trump won, waiting to see what stance the Republican would take toward Japan before arranging any face-to-face meetings. Clearly, Tokyo did not really believe that they’d be facing any such scenario. Contacts with the Trump campaign had been kept at a low level, such as when security adviser Michael Flynn visited Japan in October and met briefly with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. Even the Foreign Ministry admitted that Japan’s policy of building links with the Trump administration essentially “start from zero.”

The prime minister’s congratulatory message to Donald Trump was effusive in its praise: “As a very successful businessman with extraordinary talents, not only you made a great contribution to the growth of the US economy, but now as a strong leader, you have demonstrated your determination to lead the United States.”

This was followed in coming hours by a policy u-turn. Rather than hang back and simply let senior advisers make contact with the Trump people, Abe decided that he needed to jump on a plane as soon as possible and meet with Donald Trump in person. That meeting is now scheduled for the 17th.

It can be surmised that Abe and his team have calculated that their best bet is to quickly establish warm personal relations with Trump, and the best way to do so is to flatter his ego as much as possible. As distasteful as that may be, it is also the best play that the Abe government have going at present. The insecure Mr. Trump is highly susceptible to flattery.

To the extent that Donald Trump has pre-existing views on foreign policy in Asia, most of them spell major trouble for the established policies of the Abe administration.

Trump has been consistent since the 1980s expressing the view that Japan has abused its alliance relationship with the United States. As Trump would have it, Japan has grown fat and rich selling its products to the United States and buying real estate in New York, while refusing to accept US products into its own market and “free riding” on the US security commitment. These views seem to have hardened in Trump’s mind decades ago and have never been revised by any development in the meantime.

Meanwhile, the Abe administration had dedicated this Diet session to ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), ignoring the fact that both major US presidential candidates had taken positions against it. One may infer that Tokyo believed that either outgoing President Barack Obama would push ratification during his lame duck period, or else that Hillary Clinton would change her position once she was in office.

While it seems very far-fetched to believe that Donald Trump will change his position on opposing TPP, the Abe administration seems to be hoping against hope that he will do so. Rather than give up on what appears to be an entirely pointless gesture, the ruling coalition is instead bent on ramming TPP ratification through the Diet.

On the security burden issue as well, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada has laid out the view that Japan’s “sympathy budget” for hosting US forces is already “enough” and doesn’t warrant any change. That opening bid seems unlikely to remain in place for very long.

Another problem that the Abe administration faces is that the “alliance managers” they are used to dealing with do not seem likely to receive major positions in the Trump regime. For example, Michael Green, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a leading member of the usual Japan policy mafia from the Republican side, came out strongly against Trump during the campaign, saying that “he does not have the judgment to be president” and that his Asia policy is “completely incoherent.”

At this point it is unpredictable what position the Trump administration will take, for example, on Futenma relocation or on defense of the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands. No one even knows what kind of people will be making those policy decisions.

Japanese love predictability, but for the moment their alliance relationship with the United States has been pushed back to close to zero, and President-elect Trump has in fact repeatedly touted the supposed virtues of being unpredictable in order to gain advantages in negotiations over adversaries and allies alike.

If the Trump administration’s policies are as unstable and perhaps as hostile as now appears likely, this can only lead to markets collapsing due to a lack of trust and higher tariffs; as well as a major political boost to those in Japan who have been calling for remilitarization and a security policy more independent of the United States.

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