Likely Future Of Japan-US Relations Under Trump Presidency – Analysis


The month of December looked to be a month of reconciliation among major nations in East Asia with significance beyond their national boundaries.

First, Shinzo Abe hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin in his Yamaguchi prefecture hometown in an attempt towards reconciliation since World War II and then shakes hands with US President Barack Obama at Pearl Harbour weeks after the US marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack there reciprocating Obama’s visit to Hiroshima’s atomic bomb sites in May 2016, thereby demonstrating mutual forgiveness.

Russia and the US are the two major countries that had fought Japan in World War II. While the US signed the security treaty with Japan after the War and has been providing the nuclear security umbrella since then, Russia is one of the few countries which never signed a peace treaty with Japan after 1945 because in the war’s final days then Soviet Union occupied four then-Japanese islands just north of Hokkaido, to the country’s northernmost main island.

The question that arises is: how much success was achieved in this reconciliation process? Hardly any. While no concrete agreement was reached with Russia, things remained unclear with the US since Obama will relinquish office soon. His successor, Donald Trump who would assume office in early 2017 has been making statements whose long-term significance remains unclear at the moment. While his telephone talk with the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen infuriated China, Trump has questioned the US commitment to the ‘One China’ policy in order to get some trade concessions from Beijing.

As regards Japan and South Korea as allies of the US since the World War II, Trump has asked for the allies to share greater financial burden if they expect the US to continue giving guarantee about their security. He has even suggested that the allies might even think of developing their own nuclear weapons in order to protect their security, a stance that would bury Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world to the dustbin of history.

In a Twitter post, Trump even called for strengthening and expanding the US’ nuclear capabilities “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes”. Such posturing has raised and alarmed nuclear non-proliferation experts, who fear could fuel global tensions. Whether such developments are to be seen as examples of reconciliation or potential destabilizing symptoms are open to interpretations.

So far as Japan’s relations with Russia is concerned, the Kurile Islands chain that separates the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean in the southern tip of Japan have serious sentimental significance for Japan and probably some economic value of providing fishing rights. But for Russia, the islands are strategically valuable if the installation of missile defense systems on two of the islands are kept in mind, which is why Russia is never keen to cede the territory. Given this interest by either side, real reconciliation seems to be a far cry no matter how much Abe tried to honour Putin with personalized treatment in an onsen (hot spring) rather than in office to get some tangible outcome.

Where do these changing equations leave China? While China-Russia relations seem to have warmed, the logic behind this seems to be the common concern with the US and therefore defiance against the US and the European Union. While Russia might not be comfortable with an emergent powerful China as its neighbor, Japan looks tempted to make a new friend in Russia as a bulwark against an unpredictable China.

But the next inevitable question that arises is, why Japan wants to invest in Russia despite that it joined the West to impose sanctions against Russia in response to its aggression in Ukraine. Abe is not sure if Trump would continue or eliminate those sanctions, which is why he broke protocol to become the first foreign leader to meet him in New York on 17 November.

Trump is not a popular leader in Japan and as the Prime Minister of the country, Abe needed to gauge the likely policies that Trump would pursue.

In a joint telephone survey conducted from 2 to 4 December in Japan and from 28 November to 4 December in the US by The Yomiuri Shimbun and the US survey forum Gallup, 40 per cent expect Japan-US relations to deteriorate during Trump presidency. In Japan, 1,060 randomly selected people responded and 1,027 people in the US responded to the survey during the above period.

Of this, 57% of the Japanese respondents and 48% of the American respondents considered current Japan-US relations to be “good” or “very good”. The previous poll taken in November 2015 showed similar percentage point with 58% of respondents in Japan and 49 % in the US saying relations were good. However, the 2016 poll said bilateral relations will deteriorate greatly or to some extent, an increase of 7% in Japan and 14% in the US.

The reason behind this change seems to be because of Trump’s remarks on the alliance relationship itself by demanding from Japan greater sharing of cost of hosting US forces and his expressed intention to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact, both of which if taken to their logical conclusion, could dramatically overhaul Japan’s foreign policy itself. In that case, the attempt towards reconciliation would have been suddenly reversed. No country seems is prepared now to such an eventuality.

On the question of sharing costs, 60% of Japanese respondents said the costs should be kept at “current level” and only 4% said Japan should “pay more”. The percentage point in the US was, 48% for keeping at the “current level”, and 42% said Japan should “pay more”. Trump’s suggestion to Japan that it might consider developing nuclear weapons to deter wars did not find favour as 72% of Japanese respondents said it was “not necessary”, while 54% in the US said it was “not necessary” and 46 % answered it was “necessary”.

Another poll by Nikkei Inc/TV Tokyo also showed that majority of Japanese was disappointed with Trump’s win, though many did not see it affecting bilateral relations. The telephone survey result post-Trump victory for over three days showed that 56% of respondents said they were disappointed with Trump’s win, while only 20% saw it as a positive development.

Disapproving Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric on the campaign trail, 62% of women were critical of him, compared with 51% of men who saw the victory in favourable terms. On the question of Trump calling Japan to shoulder a heavier financial burden for maintaining the US military presence in Japan, a majority of 51% responded that the current framework should not be altered, with 34% saying that Japan should pay less and 5% that it should pay more. A plurality of respondents, or 46%, foresaw no change in bilateral relations under Trump administration, while 34% expect ties to deteriorate and 6% expect an improvement.

A sizable section of Japanese academics also expressed ‘surprise’ to hear the final election result as it was widely believed that Hillary Clinton will win and ‘shock’ because they were not familiar to hear Trump’s “rude an abusive language, his discriminatory attitude against minorities and foreigners, his prejudice of looking down women, and above all his violent messages to deny globalization and internationalization”.

Had Clinton won, probably the importance that Abe-Putin meeting received would not have been the case. Abe had almost succeeded in Japan in selling the idea of benefit that Japan’s entry into the TPP would bring for the country. The TPP was the centerpiece of Obama’s Asia strategy and Japan saw it as a means to prevent China from becoming the rule-setter in Asian trade. If Trump kills the TPP, China will feel emboldened to replicate the TPP idea its way what Obama intended to do in his way.

Finally, if Japan and Korea are to pay more for their defence, if the TPP becomes dead, if Russia-China relations warm up further, if US-China relations deteriorate over the Taiwan issue and Trump questioning the “One China” policy, and Trump undertakes more drastic policy changes, where does Japan finds itself in such a changed situation? Abe’s political future could come under threat. Abe might as well feel tempted to push his political goal further to amend Article 9 of the Constitution to achieve his long term goal to make Japan a ‘normal’ state.

With an eye on China and North Korea and coupled with the emerging new situation, Japan’s Cabinet approved on 22 December 2016 a record defence budget, while keeping intact the 1% of GDP on defence spending limit. According to the World Bank, China in contrast spends about 2% of its GDP on defence and the US around 3.3%. Even with a lower level of spending than China, Japan has produced a military that is shaping up to be among the world’s best. And this despite the Constitutional limitation that the country’s forces would be for defensive purposes only. Though Abe would try to maintain the existing course in the country’s relations with the US, given Trump’s unconventional policy utterances, a possible review of Japan’s foreign policy priorities could be thinkable. Asian politics seem to be heading towards turbulent times.

The author is currently ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, JAPAN. Disclaimer: The views expressed are author’s own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India.


Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Former Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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