Is America Abandoning Japan?

A SH-60B Seahawk helicopter sits on the deck of JDS Kurama. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

Why Shinzo Abe is making the U.S.-Japan relationship a priority.

During the U.S. presidential election, American foreign-policy experts reassured their international counterparts that the Trump phenomenon was only a fad and that cooler heads would prevail. The foreign-policy establishment in the United States was not prepared for a Donald Trump presidency, and the international community was even more caught off guard. Trump’s surprising victory will have a significant impact domestically and internationally, because his lack of political experience will make it difficult for world leaders to ascertain U.S. policy going forward. Moreover, his penchant for outlining complex policy objectives and attacking rival superpowers on Twitter, his habit of backtracking on previous statements and his “America First” rhetoric will bring immense uncertainty and unease within the international community.

No world leader may be more impacted by an unpredictable United States than Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, who has tied much of his foreign policy to a steadfast U.S.-Japan alliance. Indeed, Abe reaffirmed this during a speech at Japan’s National Diet earlier this month: “In the past, now, and from now on, it is the Japan-U.S. alliance that is the cornerstone of foreign and security policies of our country. This is a changeless principle.” Abe’s dependence on the United States is combined with other factors. His efforts to reform Japan’s antiquated security and defense posture and his desire to nurture other relationships in the region—including those with India and Australia—contribute to that dependence.

During Abe’s second term, he has sought to “normalize” Japan by increasing the capabilities and role of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, improving Japan’s stature in international relations, and reducing the constitutional barriers that previously limited Japan’s ability to respond to a rapidly changing international-security environment and a rising China. However, this increased autonomy was, ironically, heavily dependent on a strong alliance with the United States.

Abe’s ability to pursue his foreign-policy and security objectives is contingent on his domestic successes, namely reviving a stagnant economy. However, both these objectives have been muddied by Trump’s scattergun approach towards Japan and East Asia writ large. Trump’s potential distancing from the region may force Abe to pursue his goals independent of United States support, which could lead to increased risk taking and raise concerns in China and South Korea.

Birds of a Feather?

Some commentators have said that Abe’s “hard-headed, conservative style may appeal to Trump.” Abe, sensing opportunity following the election, quickly secured a November 17 meeting with Trump. He was the first world leader to do so. Abe had two broad objectives: first, to “underscore the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance” and, second, to salvage the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Abe left the meeting confident and described Trump as a “trustworthy leader” while securing a future meeting to discuss the issues in greater depth. Following the meeting, Japan ratified the TPP, a sign that Abe initially held onto the hope that Trump would change his mind on the trade pact. These hopes now appear dashed, as one of Trump’s first executive actions since assuming the White House was to sign an order withdrawing the United States from the trade pact. Still, Abe seems insistent on pushing forward an amicable line with Trump and remains focused on meeting with the president in the coming weeks.

Abe and Trump also share a willingness to engage with Russia. Although not as enamored with President Vladimir Putin as Trump, Abe showed a realist pragmatism when he met with Putin in mid-December to discuss security issues and territorial disputes. Although Abe did not make significant gains concerning the islands, he laid the groundwork for future meetings to discuss joint economic projects in the region.

Abe is also likely to find support from Trump concerning the security threats from China and North Korea security. The rise of China and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are the driving security factors that have led to changes in Japanese security policy. In early December, Trump took the unprecedented action of accepting a call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. China took notice and has since taken increasingly provocative actions to signal its displeasure to Trump. Trump responded by doubling down and posting several tweets criticizing China. He has also questioned its activities in the South China Sea, and set the stage for an epic confrontation with China on trade-related issues through his appointment of Peter Navarro—renowned for his tough talk on Beijing—as his chief trade envoy.