CAN JAPAN LEVERAGE NEW TIES WITH TRUMP ADMINISTRATION?
“Many people say Donald Trump’s policies are difficult to predict, but I personally think it’s relatively easy if one applies his favorite ‘America First’ slogan and thinks in terms of the world coming second, and Japan perhaps third.”
So declared veteran journalist Taro Kimura a week before Trump’s inauguration on the weekly Internet Genron TV news show that I host. Kimura had predicted the real estate mogul’s victory early in his presidential campaign.
Trump’s policies are “quite straight-forward,” according to Kimura, and can best be described as reflecting the self-centeredness of a declining superpower—“nothing more, nothing less.” Kimura further pointed out:
“Various people are wishfully expecting Trump to heed the advice of experts and express ‘respectable ideas’ in his inaugural address. But I don’t think he will. I bet he will express the same ideas in his inaugural address as in his campaign.”
Below is the gist of Trump’s 20-minute address of January 20, which turned out to resemble his campaign speeches surprisingly closely, as Kimura predicted.
–The US has for many decades “enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry”;
–The US has “subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion” of its military;
–The US has “made other countries rich” while its “wealth, strength, and confidence has disappeared over the horizon;
–The US has “spent trillions of dollars overseas” while its infrastructure “has fallen into disrepair and decay”; and,
–The wealth of America’s middle class has been “ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.”
In a nutshell, Trump’s is a claim that the US has long sustained serious losses despite having abundantly contributed to the other nations of the world. That is why, Trump stresses, he will protect America from the “carnage” of other nations from now on, following “two simple rules—“Buy American and Hire American.” Trump pledged: “From this moment, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
Trump has already charged Japan with spending too little on its national defense. The new American leader is correct in this regard. The point raised by Trump during his campaign regarding Japan’s over-reliance on the US for its national security is a problem Japan must by all means resolve as soon as possible. Japan must grapple squarely with Trump’s warnings pertaining to its defense budget (currently just 0.96% of its GDP) as well as a much-protracted revision of its constitution.
Meanwhile, Trump’s criticism of Toyota Motor Corporation is clearly wide of the mark. It is quite obvious that his protectionist economic policy will, in the mid to long-term view, almost surely bring only negative effects on the world including the US, which itself has promoted and benefited from free trade and open markets over the decades.
Just three days before Trump declared “protection will lead to great prosperity and strength,” Chinese President Xi Jinping, of all people, emphatically defended the importance of an open economy and free trade at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. What we see developing under our noses is an inverted world, one in which up is down and down is up.
As regards Trump’s inaugural address, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) criticized Trump in an editorial entitled Trump’s Populist Manifesto on January 20: “His inaugural address was a full-throated populist manifesto against the political ‘establishment’ that will cheer his voters. How this will translate into government isn’t clear, but there’s no doubt Mr. Trump is charging head first into the fray.”
In their coverage of the inauguration, CNN and many of the other American networks seriously questioned Trump’s use of words in pledging to end “this American carnage.” WSJ also took a swipe at Trump, noting: “As he often does, Trump also makes American life today seem much darker than it is…but carnage is a word better suited for Aleppo under Russian bombing (under President Putin whom Trump apparently trusts). “
Meanwhile, Trump for his part vented his anger at the media, declaring: “They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”
Trump’s anger is understandable up to a point in view of a majority of the US media still engaging in often biased anti-Trump reporting—a trend that began as a majority of the US mass media supported Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party from the early stages of the presidential campaign, turning harshly against the Trump camp. Objectively speaking, however, Trump’s toxic relationship with the media will over time likely have adverse effects on his political administration.
The international community have grave apprehensions about what Trump will do in office. As Trump has pledged to “reinforce old alliances and form new ones,” is it possible that Russia will become America’s new ally?
How does Trump account for the inconsistency between his appeasing posture towards Russia and his firm stance vis-à-vis China? Both Russia and China are potential threats to the international community, given that they think nothing of seizing foreign territories. And yet, Trump assumes opposing stances towards the two countries. Does this difference reflect his hard-nosed calculus of economic gains and losses as a former real estate mogul?
Bilateral relations among nations have traditionally been classified into four main categories on the basis of values and ideologies: (1) hostile nations, (2) neutral nations, (3) friendly nations, and (4) allies. Is the US going to change this framework under Trump? Does this mean that the US will remove Russia from category (1) and redefine it as a friendly nation under category (3)?
US Expectations and Japan’s Challenges
Contrary to their president’s viewpoint, members of the Trump administration, starting with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have distinctly positioned Russia as the biggest threat to US security. This has led to the mainstream view that Washington will treat Russia no differently from before in terms of a security risk.
However, the policies of the US government are ultimately guided by the President—the master of the White House. Trump’s move to put nations from other categories on a par with friendly nations or allies embraces the possibility of seriously destabilizing the framework of the international community.
Former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera stressed that Japanese should turn their attention to the vital role the US is expecting Japan to play under such circumstances. An LDP (ruling Liberal-Democratic Party) member of parliament, Onodera recently returned from Washington, DC, where he exchanged views with people close to the Trump administration prior to the inauguration. He observes:
“In Washington, I sensed high expectations for a definite role to be played by the Abe administration in supporting the US. I heard this directly from Kenneth Weinstein, head of the Hudson Institute, who is said to be close to the Trump administration. In point of fact, he asked me to relay to Prime Minister Abe his hope that he will be able to count on Abe for support when he begins to attend international conferences. Weinstein stressed he expects Abe to be the first person Mr. Trump can readily call on the phone whenever necessary.”
It is certainly good news that sentiment toward Japan is favorable in the US capital. However, the important question for Japan is whether Abe can be strong enough to support Trump. No matter how great Abe’s diplomatic skills may be, Japan’s diplomacy will not be effective unless it is backed up by a strong economy and a strong military.
When all is said and done, the biggest challenge facing Japan continues to be a revision of our constitution. Unless we pay close attention to Mr. Trump’s warning about the shortcomings of our national defense scheme and devise a solid framework to defend our lands and seas, we will never be able to securely steel ourselves against the Chinese threat.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 739 in the February 2, 2017 issue of The Weekly Shincho)