Elephants in the Room
How Japan Can ‘Win’ With Trump
The smart play for a core ally like Japan is to make itself relevant to the Trump administration's foreign and economic policy priorities.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to meet Donald Trump after his election as U.S. president in November. On Febuary 3, Secretary of Defense James Mattis will visit Japan on his first overseas trip as the new U.S. secretary of defense. This early engagement suggests that Tokyo can play a pivotal role in shaping the Trump administration’s foreign and security policy. But Japanese officials must be smart in pitching alliance cooperation to capture Trump’s imagination. Japan is in a unique position to do this, given the many ways it could help Trump achieve his more mutually beneficial goals, at home and abroad.
First, for an American president skeptical about the value of alliances, Japan can pitch itself as a model ally that is no freeloader, but in fact shares the burden of maintaining peace in the Pacific. Japan underwrites American forces stationed in Okinawa, making them cheaper to deploy there than they would be in California. Japan is increasing its defense budget and deploying sophisticated military capabilities not only to defend itself, but to help protect America, for instance by collaborating in missile defenses against North Korea. Japan is expanding its military ties with U.S. partners, including India, Southeast Asian nations, and NATO, which in turn reinforces their capacity to work with America’s armed forces. Japan supports America’s global posture, including support for missions in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Second, a stronger Japanese alliance can help make America “great again,” Trump’s overarching aim, by magnifying U.S. power and influence as it increasingly comes under challenge, including from revisionist powers. China and Russia have few allies, and none of consequence — the differentiator between the United States and its peer competitors is that Washington has an alliance network that spans the globe. Greatness is in part a function of followership — and many countries, starting with Japan, want to partner with America. Japan’s continued support for the U.S. alliance will make it easier for Trump to achieve his goals in Asia — including preventing Chinese domination of the region. This makes the U.S. better off and is a key part of its comparative advantage against rivals.
Third, Japanese leaders can help Washington’s new governing class understand that its country is not a trade threat but an essential economic partner. Japan is one of the top foreign investors in the United States. Three out of every four Japanese cars and trucks sold in the United States, nearly four million per year, are actually built in North America; Japanese car companies employ thousands of Americans in the kinds of well-paid manufacturing jobs Trump wants to protect.
Japan is not the export threat it was in the “Rising Sun” days of the 1980s. Chinese acquisitions of American companies, not Japanese, risk endangering U.S. national security. Japanese companies and capital can be part of the national rejuvenation that Trump has promised American voters, in part because so much U.S.-Japan economic activity comes from domestic production and investment rather than from traditional trade flows.
Fourth, Japan can support the domestic energy revolution that Trump seeks to unleash to increase American economic growth. Japan is almost entirely dependent on imported sources of energy. The first U.S. shipments of liquefied natural gas arrived in Japan in early January. Between traditional oil and gas extraction as well as the use of new technologies to tap shale and “tight” oil, North American energy production will exceed the capacity of the U.S. market to absorb it. Key to boosting domestic production will be exports to overseas markets. Japan, until now dependent on risky sources of supply in the Middle East, would benefit hugely from the stability of supply and relative lack of political risk associated with American energy exports. Energy cooperation is the kind of win-win proposition that could boost both countries’ economies and security.
Fifth, Japan will be central to America’s economic engagement in Asia in the wake of Trump’s unfortunate withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. The heart of the TPP was the liberalization of trade and investment between the United States and Japan, including in areas of American advantage like services, agriculture, and the digital economy.
Trump has focused on promoting exports from America’s heavy manufacturers. In fact, more than 80 percent of American economic output is in services and other forms of “software,” rather than the kind of “hardware” which China and other less-developed economies produce at lower cost. The U.S. enjoys a $400 billion annual trade surplus in services. The Trump administration could carve out parts of the TPP that especially support American economic competitiveness and negotiate a new bilateral deal with Japan that fills the gap left by the TPP.
Sixth, Japan can be a key part of the equation in any reset of U.S.-Russia relations under Trump. Abe is pursuing his own reset with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in hopes of settling their World War II-era dispute over the Northern Territories. Like the United States, Japan has a compelling interest in precluding the formation of a China-Russia alliance that dominates Eurasia and threatens the free nations along its littoral. If Trump genuinely wants a rapprochement with Russia, in part to help form a sturdier balancing coalition against China in Asia, Japan could be a valuable partner in that endeavor.
Seventh, Trump clearly envisions a more competitive relationship with China — in which case an invigorated U.S.-Japan alliance gives Washington additional leverage, and complicates Beijing’s ability to directly confront the United States. Japan under Abe is positioning itself to challenge China’s efforts to assert what it deems to be its natural hegemony over Asia. Japan, in this sense, is a frontline state that is standing up for the same goal as America, which has much to lose from any Chinese sphere of influence that restricts U. S. economic and military access to a dynamic region.
Japanese officials worry that Trump might make a deal with Beijing over their heads in ways that subordinate Japanese interests, including on the security of Taiwan. The Trump administration would be wiser to cooperate more closely with Japan in order to uphold Asia’s existing maritime order, subvert China’s quest for suzerainty over the international waters of the South China Sea, and reinforce the military balance in Asia in favor of the democracies and China-wary nations like Vietnam.
Many traditional U.S. allies are despairing at the prospect of dealing with an American administration they feel does not value them. The smart play for a core ally like Japan is to make itself relevant to the Trump administration’s foreign and economic policy priorities, underlining the added value to the United States of continuing close partnership.
A version of this essay appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.
Photo credit: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images