Following Donald Trump’s victory in the November 8th presidential election, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent him a congratulatory message. Abe expressed his determination to “further strengthen the bond of the Japan-U.S. Alliance” by “closely cooperating” with Trump. He also expressed his hope that the Japanese and U.S. governments will play “leading roles for assuring peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.” This indicates that the Abe government will maintain its policy focusing on the Japan-U.S. alliance.
However, in the election campaign Trump repeatedly made remarks which could shake Japan-U.S. relations. From the TPP to the stationing of U.S. military forces in Japan, the Trump era could upset the status quo which was prevailed for decades. The Japanese government may be forced by events to depart from its unquestioning support of the U.S.
U.S. decision on TPP
What the Japanese government will soon face is whether the U.S. government approves the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement which calls for the Japanese market to fully open up to multinational corporations.
The Obama administration placed the TPP at the core of its Asia-Pacific strategy. From the point of view of prioritizing the Japan-U.S. alliance, the Abe government is seeking the forcible passage of bills related to the TPP ratification in the current extraordinary session of the Diet (Japanese parliament).
Meanwhile, Trump has reiterated that he will oppose the multilateral free-trade deal. For example, in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on July 21, Trump said that he will never sign any trade deal that harms American workers. And again this week, he stated that on day one of his presidency, he will order the withdrawal of the U.S. from the agreement.
No country, including the United States, has yet ratified the TPP. The Japanese government still clings to the outgoing Obama administration position on the TPP, with Abe imploring Trump to stick to the agreement. “The TPP would be meaningless without the United States,” he said this week.
Trump: Japan to pay for occupying U.S. troops
Since the 1980s, Trump has been arguing that U.S. allied nations are freeriding on the U.S. military presence in their territories and that they should shoulder more stationing costs.
During the presidential election campaign, Trump repeatedly insisted that costs associated with U.S. military bases outside the U.S. should be fully covered by the host countries and proposed that the U.S. withdraw its troops from countries if they refuse to pay the costs. Trump went so far as to mention that Japan and South Korea should protect themselves with their own nuclear weapons.
After the President-elect assumes office, Washington will most likely pressure Tokyo to play a larger military role by citing U.S. financial difficulties. The Japanese government may be urged to pay even more of the stationing costs of the U.S. Forces in Japan as well as dispatch the Self-Defense Forces to more overseas missions such as maintenance of order in the Middle East after the collapse of the Islamic State militant group (IS).
The U.S. government may push Japan to swallow these demands by hinting at withdrawing U.S. troops from Japan although it is unlikely that the U.S. is actually ready to do that. However, if the Japanese government falls for the bluff, it will face an irreparable outcome.
Future relations uncertain
While some Japanese government officials are expressing concern that the U.S. presidential election result may shake the foundation of the Japan-U.S. alliance, a Foreign Ministry official said that the President-elect may act differently from what he said he would do during the campaign. For Japan, it appears the country may be forced to increasingly find its own way, at least for a while.
However, one thing is clear: the election result should be interpreted as a change in the undercurrent of U.S. society. As one of the factors in Trump’s victory, his promise to improve the employment situation and livelihoods of working-class white families amid a growing economic gap in America was a major factor.
This explains why Trump opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact, seeks to shift more military burdens on military allies, and takes a hostile position toward immigrant issues. The change in the undercurrent also affected the other side during the campaign. In the Democratic Party’s nomination race, Bernie Sanders, who refers to himself as a democratic socialist, waged a strong fight with his pledge to tackle economic inequality.
More time is required to see where the U.S. will proceed in the future and how the incoming Trump administration’s policies will affect international affairs and Japan-U.S. relations. The Abe government will face pressure, however, to question U.S. moves and not simply fall in line with Trump.