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Challenges in reconstructing the Japan-U.S. alliance with the incoming U.S. administration

By Satoshi Morimoto, specialist on security, defense, international politics, and diplomacy


June 2016


The Republican Party stands at the greatest crossroads ever


This U.S. presidential election is bringing about a major transformation in U.S. politics and society. This cannot be explained simply by the fact that Donald Trump, who could be called a heretical candidate, is the only one remaining from the 17 who ran for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Over 70% of America’s more than 320 million people are white, but whites will make up less than half of the population by the end of the 2040s.


Trump supporters are white working-class people who are at the low end of the education and income scales, and they have not seen their salaries rise in the past 15 years. In contrast, the richest 1% in the United States own 20% of the wealth. Whites are dissatisfied with the widening gap [between rich and poor] and with immigrants taking jobs. Whites will be left behind as other countries see economic growth, and they will become the minority [in their own country] in the end. Trump caught on in a big way [among the people] by giving clear voice to the dissatisfaction among this demographic. Trump is blustering, but he makes sense to them.


Trump has adopted an America-first policy: “The United States has over-extended its resources to the world.” “Our allies are not paying their fair share.” “Our allies must pay the cost of their defense [by the United States].” “The United States will not send troops overseas unnecessarily.”


Such a diplomatic policy represents a return to traditional isolationism. In terms of economics, Trump is a protectionist and opposes the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Traditional Republicans are proud of having created an affluent country by taking leadership and providing the infrastructure for world stability. Trump says that the U.S. should put its own needs first and build up its own power by withdrawing from that engagement and having its allies do more. Many of the party elite see this line as “a denial of the Republican Party.” The party stands at the greatest crossroads it has faced since its establishment.


Japan’s contribution has enhanced the U.S. pursuit of its national interests


Turning to the Democratic Party, we see a contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Clinton’s support comes mainly from minorities, including women and blacks, while support for Sanders is growing among white intellectuals and the young, including students.


Clinton faces the challenges of the negative reaction to her condescending speeches, the e-mail scandal, her ties with Wall Street, and the large honorariums she has accepted from major corporations, but she offers stability because she is widely recognized for her accomplishments, experience, and logical arguments.


However, Clinton is not liked by Democratic Party members, and Sanders is putting up a good fight as a social democrat who opposes the Establishment and Wall Street. Until the presidential and vice-presidential candidates are decided at the party convention in July, great attention will be focused on who will be the running mates and how the convention will go. There has never been a presidential election like this one with all of the unforeseeable things happening. Reflecting the turmoil in the international community, it is independents, who struggle to decide which side to vote for, that likely hold the key [to the election].


The problem is that the dissatisfaction and [sense of] unfairness felt among Trump supporters will not disappear easily no matter who becomes president. In other words, even if Clinton were to become president, she would have to take trends in public opinion into consideration. The contribution Japan makes to the cost of stationing U.S. forces is particularly notable even compared with the contributions made by other U.S. allies (this fiscal year Japan’s contribution came to about 199 billion yen). The Special Measures Agreement is at its limit. Both nations, however, are cautious about revising the Status of Forces Agreement, and if Japan were to pay the direct cost of the U.S. forces, it would make the U.S. military into mercenaries.


Japan has made every effort to resolve the unilateral nature of the Japan-U.S. alliance. The costs that Japan has borne for stationing U.S. forces and the stable use of the U.S. military bases are incalculable. Japan has expanded its contribution over the years: Japan has repeatedly purchased expensive weapons systems from the United States. It has endeavored to increase the interoperability between the two nations. By revising the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation and [domestic] security legislation, Japan is now able to participate in collective self-defense to a limited extent.


In playing its role in the international arena, including the United Nations, and in Asia-Pacific issues, Japan has valued the bilateral alliance and endeavored to coordinate with the United States. Anyone involved in the Japan-U.S. relationship knows how much the U.S.’s promotion of an Asia-Pacific strategy grounded in the Japan-U.S. alliance has contributed to America’s pursuit of its national interests.


Ask the American people to assess the alliance accurately


At the same time, we cannot ignore the dissatisfaction Americans have with the alliance. Japan should consult fully with the new administration about the contribution Japan has made as an ally. We must respond to China and its maritime expansion by vigorously supporting the U.S.’s rebalance [to Asia] by expanding joint use of bases and extensive support of the U.S. military.


In addition to contributing to technological superiority, Japan should increase its joint exercises, capacity building support, and equipment cooperation within the trilateral framework of Japan, the U.S. and Australia as well as within its bilateral ties with India, South Korea, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).


The Japan-U.S. alliance is the most successful alliance in the postwar era. We are being called to have the American people accurately assess the role that the alliance has played. We are being asked to consult closely on future issues and engage in security based on a new vision.


To achieve this, Japan should present to the United States an appropriate strategy and policy direction that takes a mid- to long-range perspective before the next U.S. administration comes into being.

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