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How should Japan deal with the United States in light of the Trump victory?

By Takashi Takeshita


In his congratulatory message to Trump after the business tycoon’s victory in the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 9, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe indicated that Japan’s policy of prioritizing the Japan-U.S. alliance remained unchanged. “I very much look forward to closely cooperating with you to further strengthen the bond of the Japan-U.S. alliance, as well as for our two countries to play leading roles for assuring peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region,” the prime minister said.


Trump, however, has made repeated statements that could significantly rattle the current U.S.-Japan relationship. Now that “President Trump” has become a reality, Japan must free itself from following in the footsteps of the United States and being “unable to think” for itself.


Trans-Pacific Partnership


The question that the Japanese government immediately faces is what to do with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, which would fully open the Japanese market to multinational companies.


The Obama administration, which is currently in office, has designated the TPP as central to its Asia-Pacific strategy. “Prioritizing the Japan-U.S. alliance,” the Abe administration aims to railroad the approval of the pact and the enactment of related legislation through the extraordinary Diet session.


Trump, however, has repeatedly taken an anti-TPP stance, as witnessed by his announcement (in his speech on July 21 to accept the Republican Party nomination) that he “will not sign any trade agreement that harms U.S. workers.”


Chances are nil that countries, including the United States, will ratify the TPP. Japan should stop to reconsider the trade pact and not insistently pledge its loyalty to the Obama administration, which will be leaving office.


Coverage of costs related to stationing U.S. Forces in Japan


From the 1980s, Trump has repeatedly espoused the “no free ride” principle in relation to security and has sought to expand America’s allies’ coverage of military expenses.


During the presidential campaign as well, Trump has repeatedly made such remarks as “Why don’t Japan and other allies cover all of the expenses of stationing our troops in their countries?” “They should cover all the expenses. Why does America pay?” (CNN on May 4, 2016). He has also said that it is possible that U.S. Forces will be withdrawn if countries do not pay. He has even said that Japan and South Korea may be armed with nuclear weapons.


There is a risk that the U.S. may increasingly demand that Japan cover more of the costs for stationing U.S. Forces here and that our nation dispatch SDF personnel overseas for such work as keeping public order in the Middle East after the collapse of extremist IS. The U.S. might use financial difficulties as the reason for its requests.


There is no expectation that the United States will let go of its military bases here. If Japan gives in to the “threat” that “the United States will not protect Japan if doesn’t agree [to cover the costs of our troops],” it could lead to something irreversible.


The Japanese government is mixed: some are afraid that “the core of the Japan-U.S. alliance could be shaken” while others take the optimistic view that “sometimes statements made during an election differ from actual policies taken [once in office]” (key official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). For the immediate future, though, it looks like the Japan-U.S. relationship will have to feel its way forward.


What can be said with certainty, though, is that Japan must take note of the changes in the undercurrents in the United States that have surfaced during this presidential election.


One of the reasons that Trump won is that he said he would “improve employment and living standards for white workers” amid the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States. This is reflected in his opposition to the TPP, his demand for increased coverage of the cost of the Japan-U.S. military alliance, and his exclusionary stance against immigrants. Trump also took note that Bernie Sanders, who called himself a “democratic socialist” and pledged to “rectify disparities,” performed very well as a Democratic Party presidential candidate.


It is unknown at this point what direction the United States will take. It would be inexcusable for Japan to ignore this and repeat its usual foreign policy of following the United States.


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