Japan, one of America’s closest allies in the Asia Pacific region, had been expecting the Democrats to retain the White House, and the Japanese leadership were caught off guard by the election outcome.
The ‘Trump Shock’, as it’s been labeled by the Japanese media, prompted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to seek an urgent, and unprecedented, meeting with the new U.S. president-elect, just days after the election outcome.
The Japanese leader initiated the meeting, which is scheduled to take place in New York tomorrow, to clarify Trump’s stance on regional security and trade. The urgency with which this meeting has been arranged clearly indicates just how concerned Japan is regarding Trump’s commitment to security in the Asia Pacific region.
Abe and the Japanese government face the challenging task of ascertaining how much of Trump’s controversial campaign rhetoric is destined to become policy and how much of it was simply populist rhetoric.
Japan has its own military. However, there has been a heavy American military presence in Japan since the end of World War II. At present there are 54,000 American military personnel based in Japan, and the East Asian nation has become reliant on American forces to balance the potential threats posed by China and North Korea. Speaking after the U.S. elections, Abe emphasised: “Peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, which is the center of global economic growth, is a source of US strength. The strong Japan-U.S. alliance is indispensable to supporting peace and stability in the region.”
However, Trump has clearly indicated that he will be putting America’s interests first and he is less concerned with the U.S.’s role in global affairs than his predecessors.
During an interview with the New York Times, Trump even questioned NATO’s core principal of protecting a member state that had been attacked.
On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly criticized American allies, such as Japan, for not contributing sufficiently to support American military bases, a point disputed by Japan’s Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada, who told reporters in Tokyo, “we are bearing the burden for what we should bear”. Trump, however, has threatened to withdraw troops unless allies begin paying more.
On the issue of North Korea’s advancing missile programme, Trump went as far as to suggest that South Korea and Japan develop their own nuclear programme, rather than rely on America’s ‘nuclear umbrella’, a move which would be deeply unpopular throughout Japan.
A Trump adviser, who declined to be identified, told Reuters that the U.S. president-elect is expecting Japan to adopt a more active role in Asia, and hopes Japan will become a frontline ally against an increasingly confident China. It is also understood that under a Trump administration, Japan’s military will be encouraged to participate in joint air and sea patrols with the U.S. in the disputed South China Sea. Although it is unclear how willing Japan will be to participate in any joint patrols that may agitate Beijing.
In 2012, Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) issued a draft constitution seeking to overhaul the 1947 Constitution which had been written by the U.S. Central to these constitutional amendments are controversial revisions to Article 9, which would expand the operational scope of the Japanese military and allow Japan to deploy troops abroad to defend an ally.
If the message from America’s incoming president is that Japan needs to be able to protect itself, that may give Abe the agenda for his hawkish ambitions. With Abe’s party holding a supermajority in both houses of the country’s Parliament, Japan may be able to significantly strengthen it’s military, and move away from it’s long held pacifistic status, although this could ultimately lead to a dangerous arms race in an already tense region.
Even if Abe is able to pass the necessary legislation, bolstering Japan’s military will take considerable time. Japan’s concerns are that from January 2017, the Asia Pacific region will drop off the U.S. president’s priority list, leaving a vacuum which China will be ready and waiting to fill. These fears were voiced in Japan’s leading financial publication, the Nikkei Shimbun, “We should be aware that the U.S. will pay less attention to Asia… During the transitional period, China could make a new move in the South or East China Sea. The Japanese government needs to be ready for such a situation.”
One factor that may give Abe and the Japanese leadership some relief is that since since winning the election, Trump has indicated a willingness to compromise on some of his campaign’s rhetoric, such as scrapping Obamacare and prosecuting Hillary Clinton, it also very unlikely that Trump will ever build a wall along the Mexican border, despite this being one of his most most popular rallying calls.
In reaching out to Trump at the earliest possible stage, Abe will be hoping that he can begin building a productive relationship with the new president, clarify Trump’s stand on regional security and, if possible, influence the president-elect’s understanding on the importance of ensuring stability in the Asia Pacific region.
As a businessman, Trump may, upon reflection, agree that ensuring stability across the South China Sea, which is among the world’s busiest shipping routes and through which US$1.2 trillion of U.S. trade passes annually, is still a valuable use of American resources.