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Who are the key persons in the Trump administration’s Japan strategy?

By Misako Hida, U.S.-based journalist


The Trump administration’s lineup is taking shape, with the appointment of cabinet members who are close to Russia, experts on Japan, or hardliners against China.


The key person in foreign policy will be former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has close relations with Russia. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved his appointment as secretary of state on Jan. 23. He has experience doing business in Russia and has made personal investments in stocks of East Japan Railway Company (Forbes online edition, Jan. 12) and other Japanese companies. While indicating support for the TPP at the Senate hearings, he voiced concern about China’s growing influence in the South China Sea and argued for the need for unity with U.S. allies.


However, if the U.S.-Russia relationship improves under Tillerson, who is said to be pro-Russia, and the U.S. lifts its economic sanctions against Russia, this may bring about changes in the Japan-Russia power relationship, since Russian economic cooperation with Japan, which is seeking the return of the Northern Territories, will become less important.


Prominent Wall Street investor Wilbur Ross, who has been named secretary of commerce (not confirmed, as of Jan. 24), is the top Japan expert in the Trump administration. He was decorated by the Japanese government in 2014 for his contributions to the promotion of Japan-U.S. cultural exchanges.


Ross created jobs in the U.S. by restructuring the steel and textile industries. According to the U.S. media, he is a friend of former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker. He was probably appointed to help revitalize the U.S. manufacturing industries. At the confirmation hearings, he said he “has no intention to hurt the U.S. economy with a trade war,” but pointed out the “imbalance” resulting from China’s high tariff policy. He regarded the removal of unfair trade barriers as an urgent task.


USTR-designate Robert Lighthizer is also a hardliner against China. However, if the U.S.-China relationship deteriorates, Japan may find itself torn between the two sides. Tobias Harris, Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence, a company that specializes in assessing political risks, says, “The best situation for Japan is one in which the U.S. and China are in a relationship of tension while they are also aware of the need to cooperate, and the U.S. recognizes the importance of its allies, i.e. the status quo.”


The key person for Japan’s security is Defense Secretary James Mattis (confirmed by the Senate). He has experience as a commander in the Iraq War and was commander of the Central Command responsible for military operations in Central Asia and other areas under the Obama administration. He was also involved with the policy of “rebalancing” to Asia. At his hearings, he promised to “work with the Department of State to try to strengthen relations with U.S. allies.” He further emphasized the U.S.’s role as a superpower to “continue to be committed to public interests.” Mattis is fully aware of the importance of strengthening cooperation with allies. He will be a reliable ally of Japan.


Michael Flynn, national security adviser who visited Japan last October, and Senator Jeff Sessions, who was named attorney general, advised the Trump camp on foreign policy during the election campaign.


Sessions is known to be a hawk. He told this author during the campaign, “The allies, including Japan, need to pay more for mutual defense.” While his main duties will be dealing with illegal immigrants and law enforcement, tougher prosecution of price cartels of Japanese auto part manufacturers is conceivable.


There is no doubt that Japan will face rough sailing in dealing with these tough cabinet members. (Slightly abridged)

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