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USJI Voice Vol.19

The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election: Japanese Perspectives

October 07,2016
Dr. Kazuhiro Maeshima
Professor, Sophia University / Operating Advisor, USJI

It has been very much noticeable that the word “Japan” has been frequently referred during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The last time Japan was a hot topic in the presidential campaign was the 1992 election, when trade friction between the U.S. and Japan reached a peak. Domestically in Japan as well, interest in a U.S. presidential election has been the highest in recent years.

This is because of, of course, the numerous remarks made by the Republican Party nominee Donald Trump. Mr. Trump’s various pronouncements regarding international relations are truly controversial. Among other things, constructing “a great wall” on the U.S. border with Mexico, banning immigration by Muslims, criticism toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and reexamining the security pact between Japan are the worst, to say the least.

According to Mr. Trump the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty is one-sided. Unless Japan needs to bear a greater burden and agree to shoulder the full cost of stationing U.S. forces in Japan, the Republican nominee has repeatedly suggested that he would withdraw the U.S. military. Mr. Trump has even gone so far as to say that he would accept the nuclear armament of Japan, a remark that caused many Japanese people to doubt their ears.

Put more explicitly, the truth is that people are astounded by and disgusted with Trump’s ignorance and insensitivity of the international situation in East Asia. Japan’s cost share of expenses for stationing U.S. forces has reached 75%, and Japan already bears a greater burden than many other allied countries. The Japan-U.S. Security Treaty is not one-sided at all: U.S. troops are in Japan for the purpose of peace and security in the Far East, not only Japan. The cooperative relationship between U.S. forces in Japan and the Self-defense Forces of Japan is indispensable to the stability of East Asia. If Japan were to ignore this course and proceed toward nuclear armament, it would provoke neighboring countries and the stability of East Asia would collapse at a stroke.

The GOP candidate’s modus operandi is to argue his point from the position of being a businessman,” If President Trump were to become a reality, it is very much likely that he may be maneuvered by China through face-to-face talks. The consequence would be grave for U.S. allies in East Asia, mostly notably Japan and Korean.This is not only the security guarantee that is a concern. Geopolitical risks are in themselves trade and economic problems. Japan’s economic health is directly linked to the U.S. economy.

Mr. Trump’s comments regarding economic problems between Japan and the U.S. also compel one to be apprehensive. His statements such as that “Japan is an unfair trade partner” and that “the only thing that Japan does is rob employment from the American people” probably remind us of the old fashioned “Japan-bashing” arguments. This zombie-like reasoning disproved by the fact that over the past more than 20 years, Japan has launched business endeavors in the U.S. as overseas-affiliated companies and supported the employment of U.S. citizens.

Ironically, Mr. Trump has a very good memory of the late 1980s or early 1990s. His position is understandable if one supposes that to him Japan recalls the residual image of the Japan that was the rival he fiercely competed against in the real estate business as a New York realtor during the asset-bubble driven period in Japan more than 20 years ago. The cause of his outdated remarks may be this distorted image of Japan he holds.

Even so, we may have to seriously watch what is behind Mr. Trump’s statements. Enthusiastic Trump supporters, who are mostly white blue-collar workers, seem to believe virtually all of this series of nonsensical assertions. The rhetoric of the GOP nominee allows them to get their feelings of disenfranchisement off their chest.

Although each was only a short trip of about a week, I have visited the U.S. four times this year and spoken with several enthusiastic Trump supporters encountered there. It was in effect impossible to have a rational conversation about the state of affairs in Japan and East Asia with any of these supporters. For them, Japan is the adversary who put only its own interests foremost. Protecting Japan is a terrible idea as if they sacrifice their own fortunes. The thinking of these supporters was exactly in the same mode as Trump’s statements.

Many in this group, who form the core of Trump supporters, are facing the reality of their labor situation deteriorating amid the advancement of globalization and rapid automation in their workplaces, in addition to the increase in the number of immigrants. Although I believe that the free trade resulting from the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP) has had a positive effect on the U.S. as a whole, For many of those who support Mr. Trump, the TPP must appear to be something that robs them of their jobs, at least in the short-term. For them, “revoke the TPP,” a frequent scream from Mr. Trump may sound like a gospel. Trump’s astonishing statement that “China is the mastermind behind the TPP” goes hand in hand with the image of a China that has been taking away their jobs for the past 20 years and further escalates their strong opposition to the TPP.

It should be given special note that Trump is not the only one who opposes the TPP, and that it is a fact that almost all the candidates in the Republican Party presidential primary elections opposed it as well, Ohio Governor John Kasich being one of the few exceptions and TPP supporters. In addition, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, as well, a candidate who unexpectedly put up a strong fight in the Democratic Party primary race, rigorously opposed the TPP. Amid such a current, Hillary Clinton, who won the Democratic Party nomination, has also felt compelled to withdraw her support for the TPP.

To date, in the debate surrounding the TPP in the U.S. presidential election, free trade has not been seen as symbolic of prosperity, but has been viewed as representing tormenting the defenseless. Japan must not overlook this change in American outlook that has surfaced in the current presidential election regardless of the facts.

No matter whether Clinton or Trump wins in November 8, it will probably become necessary for Japan, who desires growth through free trade, to take innovative steps and call upon the new administration to cooperate to resolve misunderstandings regarding the TPP in the U.S. domestically.

Furthermore, it is expected that there will be great changes in Japan-U.S. relations should Mr. Trump win. If the Republican candidate were to succeed through statements that are a bluff to incite a debate involving Japan and elicit the possibility of an increase in the burden borne by Japan for U.S. forces stationed in Japan, the new administration would, without a doubt, deem this the achievement of gaining a concession from Japan. Depending on the circumstances, Japan has the option of handling the matter not only through the usual diplomatic channels involving the White House or the Department of State, but also through deepening its cooperation with the U.S. Congress, the mightiest player that would be able to put a Trump Administration on hold. In such a case, Japan should probably venture to resolve the situation while cooperating closely with the Congressional U.S.-Japan Caucus, a group of congresspersons in the House of Representatives who advocate strengthening relations with Japan and the Pacific.

Japan should work assiduously to achieve the best result for the people of both Japan and the U.S. Would not doing so further strengthen Japan-U.S. relations and, through cooperation between our two countries, create a bilateral relationship that would be a model for taking the initiative to resolve the various problems countries around the world encounter?


Related Issue
USJI Voice Vol.23: The Trump Administration and the Future of U.S.-Japan Relations
Dr. Kazuhiro Maeshima, Professor, Sophia University / Operating Advisor, USJI

Related USJI Research Project by the Author
2016 US Presidential Election: Japanese Perspectives



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