Should Japan worry about President Trump?

Grant Newsham November 13, 2016 6:53 PM (UTC+8)
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Mr. Trump’s victory was a surprise, maybe even a shock, for Japan. Faced with the day-after reality of a President Trump and a new, unfamiliar administration the Japanese are presumably wondering what this means from a defense perspective? In certain key respects, the Japanese government might be pleasantly surprised with Tuesday’s election outcome.

What does the Trump presidency mean for Japan’s security?

This is a good thing for Japan — though it might not understand why. In particular, one expects an end to the eight years of Obama Administration appeasement of the PRC that resulted in China gaining de facto control of the South China Sea and its vital shipping lanes, and stepping up harassment of Japan in the East China Sea. This overly accommodating policy has raised doubts regionwide — to include in Japan — about US commitment to the region. Even the Chinese sensed this and a common refrain heard from certain PRC quarters in recent years is: ‘The Americans won’t do anything.’

Mr. Trump can reverse this just by standing up for the United States’ and its friends’ interests. Being squarely in China’s crosshairs, Japan will benefit from an America with a newfound backbone when it comes to PRC efforts to dominate East Asia, displace the United States in the region, and cow Japan into submission.

Moreover, the new administration’s ‘house cleaning’ of US Asia policy staff might be a good thing for Japan. Mr. Trump already has some good advisors on Asia security matters — and there are a number of others he can call on. And perhaps even a few foreign policy experts who signed letters publicly damning Trump as unsuitable for the presidency might make amends. These people all understand Japan’s importance to the United States (and vice versa) and the importance of the US-Japan relationship to underpinning stability in Asia.

Ironically, certain people responsible for the current difficulties posed by Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China Seas as well as North Korea’s seemingly inexorable march toward fully capable missiles and nuclear weapons were poised to come back as officials in a Hillary Clinton Administration. The Japanese might fairly breath a sigh of relief.

Will President Trump force Japan to pay more toward the upkeep of US forces?

One doubts Mr. Trump will pick a fight on this matter. He has bigger issues to handle in Asia. And even if he did request Japan to pay more? Say, another billion dollars. That’s nothing for an economy the size of Japan’s. It’s about the cost of a couple questionable Japanese public works projects. And what does Japan get in return for this inconsequential payment? The services of the world’s most powerful military. Not a bad deal.

Hopefully Japan isn’t really fretting over this matter — though it probably is. The Abe Administration has other more important things to worry about with China and North Korea, and should do (and pay) whatever is necessary to keep the Americans committed.

Of course, if Japan continues pleading poverty and asking the Americans to accept a cut in host nation support, it will not be well received by the Trump Administration. Even the Obama Administration was unsympathetic to Japan claiming it hasn’t an extra dime to spend on defense.

Will worries over President Trump being tougher on Japan bolster arguments for increased defense spending in Japan, and could it even spark discussion about going nuclear?

Not automatically. Regarding defense spending — which is the real problem facing Japan: The only way Japan will increase defense spending is if it becomes more afraid of the US Government than it is of the Ministry of Finance (MOF). That requires the US President to quietly insist (indeed, almost threaten) that GOJ increase defense budgets well beyond the illusory increases Mr. Abe has squeezed out of MOF. That is where Mr. Trump should focus, and not on the host nation support issue. Will he? That’s hard to say, but it’s long overdue for a US Administration to forcefully raise the matter of inadequate Japanese defense budgets — to which many of Japan’s defense problems can be traced.

Abe might offer to have the Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF) ‘do more’ with US forces and other regional nations as a way of taking some heat off and avoiding American pressure to spend more on defense. While a more active JSDF is a good thing, the lack of funding still places considerable limits on what more Japan can actually do in terms of patrolling, exercises, and ‘presence.’

More usefully, if Mr. Abe wants to show Japan is doing enough, he might force the JSDF to finally become a ‘joint’ force, with all three services capable of operating together, and also push for better Japanese-US military integration that currently doesn’t exist much beyond the US Navy and Maritime Self Defense Force.

Regarding ‘going nuclear’: Japan has been discussing going nuclear for some time, albeit internally and quietly. Will a Trump Administration prompt Japan to develop serious plans or otherwise move forward to nuclear weapons? Only if there are clear signs Japan cannot count on the United States to help defend Japan. Asking Japan to pay more for its defense (after decades of under-spending) does not indicate a lack of US commitment, as would be the case if the USG suggested the Senkaku Islands aren’t worth defending.

Time will tell about the Japan-US security relationship, but Mr. Trump’s election is a useful opportunity to inject some new blood and new ideas into the bilateral relationship at the policy level, rather than continuing the familiar relationship typified by ‘alliance managers’ moving back and forth between think-tanks and government as parties change power, and content with glacial progress.

Although both countries get along well and that’s no small feat, after 60+ years the US forces and JSDF are still basically incapable of operating together — except for the two navies. The alliance, or better said, the people running it, should aim higher. A more skilled, properly funded Japan Self Defense Force, solidly linked and integrated with US forces — with all the commitment that demonstrates on Japan’s part is a proper objective. Mr. Trump’s election is more a cause for optimism rather than concern — on both sides.

Grant Newsham
Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with over 20 years experience in Japan and Asia as a US Diplomat, business executive, and US Marine Officer.
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