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Trump, Abe and the US-Japan Security Alliance

16 Nov 2016
By Leif-Eric Easley
US_Japan. Photo Credit: USARJ NCO CORPS (Flickr). Creative Commons

The new US president-elect and the long-serving Japanese prime minister will meet this week to discuss how Tokyo’s international security contributions are integral to American interests in Asia.

Donald Trump’s election as the next president of the United States has raised questions among Washington’s allies in Australia, South Korea, Japan and beyond. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, after seeing US-Japan relations achieve a symbolic high point with President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, is concerned about the next US administration’s security and trade policies. Abe moved quickly to schedule a face-to-face meeting with President-elect Trump on 17 November in New York City, little more than a week after the US elections.

Abe’s unusually early meeting may be shrewd diplomacy, but also carries risks. Trump’s foreign policy team is not yet in place, and without adequate bilateral preparation leaders can get off on the wrong foot. Recall South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s gambit in March 2001 to hold a summit with President George W. Bush during the latter’s first 100 days in office. Kim’s effort to elicit US cooperation with his ‘Sunshine Policy’ toward North Korea appeared to meet with the opposite result. The Bush administration was still formulating its foreign policies but made clear it would approach Pyongyang with greater scepticism.

With the present US leadership transition, Abe’s government is concerned about free trade.  His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) sought to breathe life into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by having the lower house of the Japanese Diet (parliament) ratify the agreement soon after Trump’s electoral victory. The TPP was negotiated by the Obama administration, Japan and 10 other governments to lower barriers and raise standards for commerce in the Asia-Pacific. The TPP is seen as the primary economic component of the US pivot to Asia, but election year politics have brought its ratification by the US Congress into serious doubt.

Many analysts have already declared the TPP dead and Abe will be careful not to appear to make a failed attempt to pressure Trump on trade. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has described the leaders’ meeting as an opportunity to “build trust” and highlight “the importance of the Japan-US alliance.” Abe recently won a change in LDP leadership rules to allow him a third 3-year term as the ruling party president. As one of Japan’s longest-serving and most influential prime ministers, Abe is likely to present himself as a strong and enduring partner in Asia for the Trump administration.

The meeting is thus likely to focus on shared US-Japan interests and Tokyo’s increasing burden-sharing within the context of the alliance. The US-Japan relationship does not operate in a vacuum, so President-elect Trump should be briefed by his advisers on the trajectory of Japan’s security contributions and regional role in Asia. Abe has overseen upgrades to Japanese defence capabilities and changes to domestic law to allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to do more abroad in various areas from peacekeeping to counter-piracy. Abe and his political allies who favour revising Japan’s self-constraining ‘peace constitution’ prevailed in upper house elections in July 2016, raising the possibility of constitutional amendments that have been discussed but unattainable throughout the postwar period.

A recent article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs, How Proactive? How Pacifist? Charting Japan’s Evolving Defence Posture, updates the academic literature on Japan’s postwar security policy. In particular, it evaluates competing explanations for Japan’s defence posture trajectory—active ally, enhanced autonomy, remilitarisation, and normalisation—by providing a new framework for examining changes in doctrine and capabilities.

Observing change in defence posture with analytical rigour is important because the misreading of its trajectory may result in lost cooperation and unnecessary hedging. Worse still, inaccurate accounts of a neighbour’s defence posture can be used as cover by actors who seek to advance their interests at the expense of stability and the existing regional order. Abe will likely imply that this is precisely what China is doing, and that Trump can look to Tokyo as a partner in upholding rules-based trade, maritime freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for human rights.

It would be well within the historical pattern of US-Japan relations for Trump to ask Abe to do even more. The normalisation of Japan’s defence posture has charted a trajectory that is more pacifist and independent than many in Washington would recommend, while remaining less independent than Japanese conservative nationalists would prefer. Japan is not aggressively remilitarising but can better differentiate its defence posture trajectory from the worst-case assumptions of regional neighbours. Tokyo can do this by pursuing further historical reconciliation in Asia and showing that the US-Japan alliance is a source of continuity for both countries’ security strategies.

If continuity is the message to come out of Trump and Abe’s meeting this week, the two leaders will have helped each other reassure their respective publics. The US-Japan alliance is too important for the world’s most dynamic region to be allowed to drift. Engaging China, countering North Korea and stabilising Southeast Asia will be easier if US alliances across the Pacific are strong.

Leif-Eric Easley is assistant professor of international studies at Ewha University and a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. His study of Japanese defence posture was recently published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs. His other publications are available here.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.