Attention, Japan: Trump Is Your Golden Opportunity

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer JS Kurama. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

Tokyo may have to renegotiate its alliance with the United States.

The inauguration of Donald Trump has put many countries on alert given the uncertainty his administration brings. In Japan, this has taken on a fever pitch. This is because, despite widespread agreement that the past few years represent the strongest the alliance has ever been, Trump spent the bulk of his presidential campaign challenging this narrative. He rekindled the Japan-bashing rhetoric of the 1980s by portraying Japan as a free rider in both the economic and security realms. He openly questioned whether the United States should keep its troops in Japan if Tokyo does not increase its financial contributions to the alliance. In a surprising broadside to Japan’s nuclear-sensitive public and nonproliferation advocates alike, he even encouraged Japan to develop nuclear weapons as a way to deal with North Korea.

This has all played as fodder to form a tremendous amount of doom-and-gloom analysis in both the United States and Japan on what a Trump administration will mean for the alliance. This is warranted, as his campaign rhetoric provides us with a general sense of the possible parameters he may take America’s relationship with Japan. At the same time, it is incomplete. While there is no doubt that a Trump administration will bring a new set of challenges to the U.S.-Japan alliance, so does every new administration. What is missing from the current debate is a consideration of the opportunities a Trump administration could bring.

No doubt there are challenges associated with a Trump administration. Arguably, given his campaign rhetoric, his administration poses more serious challenges to the alliance than any other incoming administration in recent history. None of these are trivial. All of them carry the potential to dramatically reshape the alliance—and the Asia-Pacific—should they play out.

The first is the challenge that comes with reduced U.S. regional engagement. If Trump sticks to his isolationist proclivities, then they will result in reduced U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. This, in turn, will be destabilizing, as it leaves the strategic space for regional challengers like China, North Korea and Russia to act. Such reduced U.S. engagement will be viewed in Tokyo with much trepidation and lead to grave doubt about U.S. reliability to underwrite regional security. This could lead to fundamental questions concerning Japan’s own national security and force Tokyo to consider a world where the United States no longer actively undergirds regional security. Facing a region susceptible to nineteenth-century dynamics, Japan would find itself in the uncomfortable position of having to play great-power politics. Security dilemmas, arms races and a destabilized Asia-Pacific would soon follow.

Even if the United States remains engaged, a second challenge is the uncertainty surrounding how it will engage. Whether it be talking to Taiwan’s president or expressing an affinity for Russia, Trump has demonstrated his propensity for the unexpected while keeping seasoned foreign-policy practitioners scratching their heads on the consequences for U.S. diplomacy. Assuming he is likely to continue this behavior, the specter of a “Trump Shock” on par with the Nixon Shock will loom over Tokyo. The alliance functions best when the two countries are in sync and policies are predictable. Without a clear U.S. foreign policy that is consistent and coherent, Japanese foreign policy will operate under assumptions that are possibly no longer relevant. Clarity and coherence are necessary for Japan and the United States to work effectively together in regional affairs. Unmoored from predictability, forging common efforts to support regional peace and prosperity will be difficult.

A third challenge is the most fundamental. Will the United States remain committed to the alliance? From the Japanese perspective, Trump’s campaign rhetoric cast uncertainty over the alliance. This has been characterized as severe lack of knowledge on one of the spectrum, and disdain for Japan on the other. The result, however, is the same: deep anxieties in Tokyo. Alliance managers in Tokyo are forced to ask themselves fundamental questions regarding Japan’s security. Will the alliance endure? If it does, in what form? Are the Senkaku Islands still covered by Article 5 of the Security Treaty? Will a fundamental restructuring of burden sharing be necessary? What will become of U.S. nuclear deterrence commitments to Japan? If Japan is forced to consider the alliance’s survival, it naturally leads to issues that alliance managers in neither country are ready to discuss. This includes Japan’s unilateral military buildup, seeking alliance ties with other nation-states or, as Trump suggested, the pursuit of nuclear weapons. All of these issues are bound to provoke other regional states to react.

These challenges are significant. This is precisely why analysis of a Trump presidency is negative. But this is not a complete analysis. Like it or not, Trump is president. As such, it is also constructive for the alliance to begin a concerted dialogue of potential opportunities that the Trump administration offers to U.S.-Japan relations.