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USJI Voice Vol.23

The Trump Administration and the Future of U.S.-Japan Relations

March 15,2017
Dr. Kazuhiro Maeshima
Professor, Sophia University / Operating Advisor, USJI

February 20 marked one month into the new Trump administration. Amid wide-ranging changes, even in Japan there is an extremely high degree of interest in the attitudes and actions of the new administration. In this article, I will provide an overview of the Trump administration and the future of U.S.-Japan relations.

Strengthening of the U.S.-Japan Alliance: A Relieved Japan

Dating back to last year’s presidential election, Mr. Trump has made numerous comments that represent a departure from existing U.S. Japan relations, causing considerable concern for Japan vis-à-vis the new administration. However, this concern has been drastically diminishing in light of Defense Secretary Mattis’ visit to Japan on February 3-4 as well as Prime Minister Abe’s official visit to the United States and the U.S.-Japan. Summit held on February 10-11.

Japanese fears were immediately put to rest as the Trump administration expressed its continued commitment to the United States’ security guarantee from previous administrations and to the strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance. The fact that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ assurance that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands was explicitly stated during the Joint Statement immediately following the Summit is a huge relief for Japan. Given the mounting tensions surrounding the Senkaku Islands dispute, reaffirming the U.S.-Japan alliance by receiving not only a verbal confirmation from President Trump, but also in writing, was significant.

There was a definite air of relief seeing Prime Minister Abe and President Trump happily playing golf immediately following the Summit. Last November’s visit by Prime Minister Abe, who went straight to the United States following Mr. Trump’s election, may have been key in setting the precedent for the latest round of talks.

If we take a moment to consider what would have happened if Japan had not received such affirmation concerning the Senkakus that alone could have sent the U.S.-Japan alliance dangerously adrift. Without this, it is quite possible that China’s encroachment into the East and South China Seas may have grown even more pronounced. On the campaign trail in 2016, Mr. Trump blasted the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty as one-sided and called for Japan to increase its share of the costs. He also vowed to withdraw the U.S. military unless Japan agreed to shoulder 100% of the cost of stationing U.S. forces in Japan. Mr. Trump even went so far as to say that he would welcome the nuclear armament of Japan. His remarks left many Japanese, including myself, in doubt, and anticipating the worst-case scenario of the collapse of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Not only was there debate over the appropriateness of holding a summit just three weeks into the new administration, moreover, affirming the evolution or deterioration of the U.S.-Japan alliance at such an early stage was a big gamble on the part of the Japanese.

However, it seems now that these fears can be allayed in light of Secretary Mattis’ visit and the results of the U.S.-Japan Summit. In fact, during a joint press conference, President Trump even praised the Japanese for paying such a large share of the cost of basing U.S. troops. While his comments came as something of a surprise, perhaps he has finally become aware that, at 75%, Japan has already been paying a greater share of the expenses for stationing U.S. forces than many other allied countries.

As a result of the latest U.S.-Japan summit, China will have to tread carefully in its ocean expansion activities for the time being. This Summit proved to be a reaffirmation of the new Trump administration’s unwavering commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance, as well as a signal that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty exists not only for Japan, but for “the peace and security of the Far East.” Indeed, one of the Korean television reporters who visited from Seoul and interviewed me suggested that the preservation of the U.S.-Japan alliance is an affirmation of their own ties with the United States.

The Direction of Uncertain Economic Relations

In contrast to the security-related advances made in confirming the United States’ strengthened commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance, the direction of U.S.-Japan commerce and trade issues remains uncertain. While the agreement to hold cross-cutting economic dialogue on macroeconomic policy and a trade framework during the U.S.-Japan summit should be applauded, this has yet to transition into concrete talks. The first step will be the talk between Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, scheduled in the middle of March.

The Japanese are finding it difficult to read what the 45th President’s actual intention looks like. President Trump issued an executive order declaring the United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP) immediately after his inauguration. Although the door remains open for a bilateral free trade agreement, this is a heavy blow to Japan, after it had painstakingly worked out the minutiae of the TPP. During his campaign in 2016, Mr. Trump reeled off a series of remarks accusing Japan of unfair trade practices, taking American jobs, and of manipulating its currency like China. Mr. Trump fails to mention the fact that, for over 20 years, Japanese companies have opened manufacturing factories in the United States providing jobs to Americans; he displays a logic reminiscent of the “Japan-bashing” that occurred during the U.S.-Japan trade friction.

Still, there is a silver lining. Concrete plans for creating 700,000 jobs and for developing a $450 billion (approximately 50 trillion yen) market through infrastructure investment, a hot topic just before the U.S.-Japan Summit meeting, would very likely be the focus of upcoming economic dialogues. Given the United States’ weakness in infrastructure, Japan can create continued demand if it is successful in demonstrating its technological expertise.

While there is a high degree of uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration, I will continue to hope for an economic relationship that is mutually beneficial, much like the confirmed security alliance.

U.S.-Japan Relations within the International Community

Assessing the directions of the Trump Presidency is extremely difficult. This is because, since the inauguration, the POTUS has carried out one divisive campaign promise after another in the form of executive actions—such as building a Great Wall along the Mexican border and repealing and replacing Obamacare. Campaign promises or not, these policies enacted to please the “white, blue-collar class” that elected him have earned the Trump administration a very poor reputation internationally.

While close ties with Russia had been alleged since the presidential campaign, on February 15, one of Trump’s most trusted advisors, Michael Flynn, resigned as National Security Advisor as his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Trump’s inauguration came to light. If it is found that Communications with Russia occurred systematically, it is not out of the question that the White House will be held politically responsible. A prime example of Trump following through on his divisive campaign promises is his immigration ban targeting seven (now six) Muslim-majority countries. While he stopped short of his pledge to completely ban the immigration of Muslims, the suddenness and harsh approach of such measures have made him the target of international condemnation.

A look at the administration’s actions since the inauguration gives one the impression that the United States, a country once known for its tolerance in incorporating pluralistic and heterogeneous elements, is undergoing a major change. Embarking on this trajectory, it is as though the United States is throwing away the trust it had cultivated over the years on the international stage. The cozy relationship between the two leaders on display during the latest U.S.-Japan summit must not sit well with liberals in the United States, nor with the international public critical of the new administration.

However, the deepened trust fostered through the U.S.-Japan summit also presents opportunities for Japanese leadership. Although criticism of the Trump administration is widespread on the international level, at future G8 Summits and during other opportunities, by leveraging the intimate relationship shared between the two world leaders, Prime Minister Abe could serve as a mediator in introducing President Trump to other leaders and the rest of the world. Perhaps a new role for Japan of offering guidance to President Trump and helping his administration avoid missteps is in the cards.

Japan would be best served by continuing to be this trustworthy partner in conveying freedom, democracy, and the rule of law—as it has in the past—while keeping an eye on the shifts occurring in the United States. What must remain unchanged is the attitude of cooperation between the United States and Japan in building a bilateral relationship that serves as a model in taking the initiative to resolve the many problems facing countries worldwide.


Related Issue
USJI Voice Vol.19 The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election: Japanese Perspectives
Dr. Kazuhiro Maeshima, Professor, Sophia University / Operating Advisor, USJI

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


The USJI Voice is a policy-related opinion paper produced by researchers at USJI-affiliated universities. The USJI Voice is written for experts in areas connected to U.S.-Japan relations. Please share with us your opinions and suggestions related to your areas of interest.
The USJI does not take specific political positions. All views and conclusions expressed in the USJI Voice are those of the authors in their private capacity and do not represent or reflect the views of the USJI as a whole.

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