Shadow Government

Can the U.S.-Japan Alliance Survive Trump?

Concerned. Anxious. Confused. Perplexed. These are the most common adjectives I heard in Tokyo last week from Japanese officials and experts who are trying to understand the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy and what it might mean for them.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Matsuzaki arrive at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland just outside Washington, DC on February 9, 2017.  
Prime Minister Abe will meet with US President Donald Trump on February 10, 2017 at the White House.  / AFP / Brendan SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Matsuzaki arrive at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland just outside Washington, DC on February 9, 2017. Prime Minister Abe will meet with US President Donald Trump on February 10, 2017 at the White House. / AFP / Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Concerned. Anxious. Confused. Perplexed. These are the most common adjectives I heard in Tokyo last week from Japanese officials and experts who are trying to understand the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy and what it might mean for them.

They are concerned about President Donald Trump’s statements during the campaign — and for the last 30 years — denigrating U.S. alliances and bashing Japan, and wonder whether Trump understands the value of the alliance at all.

They are concerned about Trump’s transactional approach and fear that he will link economic and trade issues with security, holding the alliance hostage and putting the credibility of U.S. commitments in doubt.

They are concerned about what “America First” means, especially for U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, and whether U.S. leadership and the U.S. presence will continue.

They are concerned that the United States will abandon its commitments to the international order and to rules of the road that have long underpinned global security, prosperity, and stability — efforts in which Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has invested heavily and that are critical to managing China’s rise.

They are concerned that China will step in to fill the vacuum left by a U.S. retreat, as we have already seen in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s remarks at the World Economic Forum painting China as the leader of a globalized world.

They are concerned about unpredictability and the implications for an alliance that depends on clear understandings for cooperation and reassurance, including the extended deterrence provided by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, and on clear messages to deter shared adversaries — not policy fiat by tweet.

They are concerned about who has power and influence in Trump’s administration and whose words actually count.

It was hard to find many reassuring words, or even explanations, for my Japanese counterparts, particularly in the face of a series of erratic Trump foreign policy moves — from threats to abandon the one-China policy without any sense of the administration’s goal or strategy to the self-inflicted wound of an unnecessary fight with Australian Prime Minister Turnbull.

But Japan’s only real option is to try to make it work. The alliance with the United States is Japan’s bulwark against an assertive, rising China, which Japan sees as its greatest threat. On the other hand, Japan’s greatest fear is a U.S. grand bargain with China that would leave Japan in the dust. While Trump’s approach to China remains unclear — and many in Tokyo worry that Trump may be flirting with the idea of using Taiwan as a bargaining chip — his aggressive posture on economic issues and signs of initial hawkishness have given the Japanese some reassurance and cause for hope that the alliance will continue to play a role in U.S. efforts to push back on Chinese assertiveness.

For now, the official Japanese line is one of cautious optimism, born out of a belief that Abe can forge a personal relationship with Trump that will overtake Trump’s longstanding negative views on Japan, and based on a hope that Japanese officials can persuade Trump of the value of the alliance using facts and figures.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s visit to Japan over the weekend helped reassure the Japanese of continued U.S. treaty commitments, including their application to the Japanese-administered, Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands, and at least rhetorically to an enduring U.S. commitment to the region. But this should simply be the baseline. And while this was an important marker, many Japanese wonder whether Mattis actually speaks for Trump, making Abe’s summit with Trump on Friday even more important.

Knowing the stakes, the Japanese have carefully studied Trump ahead of this meeting — both his personality and his worldview. They are realistic in their understanding that the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is dead, and instead are considering bilateral economic proposals that could dovetail with Trump’s own agenda, particularly on infrastructure. They are prepared for Trump to press Japan to take on increased defense burden-sharing — and to respond with proposals for cooperation on new weapons systems, while attempting to provide Trump’s with facts about their contributions, and what the United States gains from them. And they have crafted a plan that will allow for Abe to cultivate personal ties with Trump — including golf.

I can’t help but be skeptical that facts and figures can persuade an administration to which facts don’t seem to matter, and for which the questioning of alliances is not just about money but about the entire concept of allies — and the idea that the United States gains anything from them. And even with a personal bond, there are real dangers for alliance management with a U.S. administration that seems to eschew predictability and clarity, which are essential to both reassuring allies and deterring adversaries.

But despite these headwinds, the Japanese gambit may work. Abe may be able to establish a personal rapport with Trump. The White House may realize that its objectives vis-à-vis China require a strong U.S.-Japan alliance, and that the United States gains much from an alliance to which Japan is a significant contributor. That would be good for the United States.

But the questions being raised in Tokyo — from across the political spectrum — are not just about specific U.S. policies and commitments. They are about the entire nature of the U.S.-Japan relationship and whether it will endure. Will the United States remain the kind of leader it has been for 70 years? Will it remain a force for stability, an advocate for rules of the road, a stalwart and predictable ally that its friends can count on and its adversaries fear? And what does that mean for an alliance that Abe, in his 2015 address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, called an “alliance of hope,” through which Japan and the United States “join our hands together and do our best to make the world a better, a much better, place to live”? An alliance, Abe said, that “always … cherishes our shared values of the rule of law, respect for human rights, and freedom”?

It seems that while the basics of the alliance may muddle through, this broader strategic vision for the alliance appears at odds with a Trump foreign policy in which the United States pulls back from Asia, undermines the international order, and disregards a rules-based approach to shaping the international environment. But can a more narrowly defined alliance be insulated from the turbulence of Trump’s broader foreign policy? And will that be enough to address the challenges that the United States faces in the region?

The United States has invested significantly in encouraging Japan to take on a greater role in the region — but Japan’s role still depends on the foundation of the United States’ relationships. The United States needs strong Japan and South Korea ties (already under strain and facing challenges in the face of political tumult in Seoul) to counter the urgent threat from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The United States needs strong regional institutions to bind China to international rules, and to strengthen alliances and partnerships that check China’s aggression in the South and East China Seas. And the United States needs to strengthen ties among other regional powers to better position countries to stand up to China’s attempts at coercion. What will these efforts look like if the United States is absent?

It’s not clear that Japanese officials have fully digested these larger questions, or whether they have a plan B if their near-term gambit fails. Nor have they fully wrestled with whether they are prepared to fill gaps left by a U.S. retreat and assume greater leadership in the region, and what the implications of that would be — especially vis-à-vis China and South Korea.

So, while there will be many eyes on Friday’s Trump-Abe summit, we should not conclude that a “successful” meeting means that the U.S.-Japan alliance will not be affected by Trump’s reckless foreign policy. The real tests have yet to come.

Top photo: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Feb. 9. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Laura Rosenberger served as a foreign-policy advisor for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. Previously, she served for more than a decade in a range of foreign-policy and national security positions at the State Department and National Security Council. Rosenberger's commitment to serving the American people began in 2004 when she joined the State Department as a presidential management fellow. She is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is originally from Pittsburgh and is an avid Steelers fan.

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