Elephants in the Room

Mattis Relieves Tokyo for Now. But Will Trump Turn the Screws?

Foreign leaders are wondering whether they can trust the president -- or if they'll have to work with subordinates.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis reviews an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo on February 4, 2017. / AFP / TORU YAMANAKA        (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis reviews an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo on February 4, 2017. / AFP / TORU YAMANAKA (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s visit to Japan this week was almost pitch perfect. He let Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada volunteer that they intended to increase Japan’s defense spending and look for new weapons systems to develop jointly with the United States. Mattis delivered the clear statement Tokyo wanted: that an attack on the Senkaku Islands would be considered an attack on the U.S.-Japan alliance under Article V of the 1960 Security Treaty. One can hear the huge sigh of relief on this side of the Pacific.

Next, Abe meets President Donald Trump on February 10. Originally, Abe’s people thought they would lock in similar set of reassurances from the president himself: on the Article V commitment to the Senkakus; on Marine bases in Okinawa; on the need for a trade dialogue (if not the Trans-Pacific Partnership itself); and on closer coordination on China strategy. Given Abe’s friendly first encounter with President-elect Trump in New York on November 17, this seemed like a good next move.

But then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull walked into his own buzz saw with the president, and now Tokyo is wondering whether it is a good idea to put any “asks” on the table that Trump might see only in terms of transactional leverage. It would be disastrous for Tokyo, for example, if the U.S. defense commitment to Japan were suddenly made contingent on Toyota not investing in Mexico or on a higher yen, two topics about which Trump fired tweet barrages at Japan this past week.

For U.S. allies, especially those in Asia, there appears now to be a dual-track approach to the new administration. The closest allies, like Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom, need deep ties to the White House (and so Abe will play golf with Trump on February 10). However, many of these allies are now gearing-up to do all the real business of foreign and defense policy with Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as the Republican Congress.

There is just too much of a Russian-roulette quality to summit-level interactions with Trump, at least for now. When one thinks back on the solidarity of leaders like Reagan, Kohl, Nakasone and Thatcher — or more recently Bush, Blair, Howard, and Koizumi — it is a real setback, particularly given the challenges to the international system from China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. On the other hand, the president has reportedly walked away from his preference for management by chaos and ordered a more disciplined process within the White House. The allies will wait and see, since they would clearly prefer working in close solidarity with the U.S. president rather than his subordinates.

Photo credit: TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images

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