Anyone who says that they know what Donald Trump will do as president is lying. Trump himself does not know what his policies or responses to particular situations will be – which is not surprising for someone who has no background on most issues a president confronts, no record of government service, no appetite for preparation, a preference for going with his gut, and the apparent absence of an ideological or moral compass. His campaign avoided detail, insisting that voters don’t care about such things, and the statements he made were usually incoherent, inconsistent, based on erroneous facts, or contradicted within the day.
There is no indication of how he views the world – what regions matter most and why, how he prioritizes security threats and partners -- or what his priorities are, apart from making America great again. He appears to view China primarily as an economic challenge, and has made no comment about how he would deal with Chinese encroachments in the South China Sea and its increasingly muscular foreign policy more generally. Trump did talk about the need to beef up the US military, which implies at least, a readiness to respond to challenges to the US presence in Asia but for the most part observers are grasping at foreign policy straws.
Observers of candidate Trump’s rhetoric could not miss two important themes that threaten to have powerful implications for the US relationship with Japan: a suspicion of US alliances and outright distrust of the free trade architecture and the liberal trading order that the US has championed since the end of World War II. True to form, President-elect Trump has backed away from the more inflammatory and disturbing statements about US allies, but his antitrade rhetoric remains undimmed.
On the stump, Trump insisted that US allies don’t pay their fair share of alliance burdens, free-or cheap ride on the US military and said that allies that don’t expand defense spending could not expect the US to honor commitments to defend them if attacked. (While Japan has historically limited its defense spending to under 1 percent of GDP, it provides $1.67 billion annually in host nation support for US forces in Japan, and is considered the “gold standard” for such deals.) When asked whether the prospect of those allies going nuclear as a result of US retreat worried, him, he was sanguine, saying they would “be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea….including with nukes, yes including with nukes.”
Trump also claimed that Japan was an unfair trader, using American largesse, currency manipulation and lousy US negotiating skills to exploit trade deals to the disadvantage of the United States. “We are getting absolutely crushed,” he complained in a Republican debate. (In fairness, the claim that Japan has been beating the US in economic competition is one of the few constants in Trump’s public utterances, with him making the same charge as early as 1990.) Trump’s calls for tariffs as high as 45 percent and the renegotiation of trade deals have many Japanese – and other US trading partners – concerned.
While Trump’s policy response to those trade deals remains unclear – many economists believe his ideas are unworkable -- his absolute opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will have an immediate impact on Japan. TPP has three purposes: promoting economic growth, deeply integrating the US into Asia and cementing a trans-Pacific order, and ensuring that the US and its partners, Japan in particular, are the architects of the Asia-Pacific institutional and normative order. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the TPP on day one of his administration undercuts all those objectives. While the damage to the US is most significant, Japan will be hard hit as well since it means that the diplomatic energy and political capital that Prime Minister Abe Shinzo invested in TPP has been wasted (the deal can’t go into effect without the US) – and his commitment to TPP has been impressive. Moreover, for Tokyo, TPP is a vital tool for forcing domestic change that is critical to resuscitating the Japanese economy. Japan is also worried by Trump’s tough talk against Mexico as many Japanese companies have plants in Mexico that are a vital part of their US supply chain: US tariffs on those imports would do great damage to their bottom line.
A third Japanese concern is US reaction to overtures to Russia to settle the Northern Territories issue, a legacy of World War II. In the closing days of the war, the Soviet Union seized four islands north of Hokkaido as booty, sparking an irredentist claim that has poisoned relations between Tokyo and Moscow ever since. Abe is determined to settle the dispute and sees conclusion of a deal as one of the most important legacies of his term in office. Unfortunately for him, the hardening of relations between Russia and the West in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea in 2014 has made it difficult to engage Russian President Vladimir Putin since any deal will require substantial economic cooperation and that is almost impossible given current sanctions against Russia and would be seen as breaking Western solidarity. Trump’s relationship with Putin is uncertain, however: throughout the campaign he spoke of the Russian leader in admiring tones and has identified Russia as a partner in efforts to battle Islamic terrorism. If Trump is more open to dealing with Putin, then Abe may have a green light to proceed on his own. (Since Putin seems more comfortable taking territory than giving it away, the odds of a breakthrough are long, however).
Facing great uncertainty in US policy toward Japan, Prime Minister Abe has done the smartest thing: He was one of the first foreign leaders to reach out by phone to President-elect Trump, and was the first to visit him in New York. He is building a personal relationship with the president elect, which is, by all accounts a critical variable in shaping Trump’s thinking. It is alleged that at the meeting, Trump did not mention an increase in payment by Japan to support US forces, although he did ask about Japan spending more on its own defense and he reiterated his opposition to TPP. After the meeting, Abe described Trump as a “trustworthy leader,” adding that “The talks made me feel sure that we can build a relationship of trust.” It is hard to imagine that anything more is possible.
Brad Glosserman, Executive Director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu – based think tank.