HARRY DEMPSEY. Will Trump snap Japan’s tenuous tightrope?

Jan 25, 2018

The unhinged madman foreign policy of US President Donald Trump means Tokyo must walk a tightrope to manage the US–Japan alliance. On security policy, on trade and on North Korea, Japan will increasingly have to develop its own independent regional vision.

Since US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech at CSIS, a Washington-based think tank, in October 2017, the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (a concept taken from the Abe government) has become the headline for the Trump administration’s Asia strategy. There has accordingly been a revival of the security-based quadrilateral dialogue between the United States, Japan, India and Australia.

There is not yet any meat on the bones of the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy — particularly in terms of concrete economic mechanisms. Without the multilateral framework of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and given the Trump administration’s bilateral zero-sum view of trade, Japan and smaller Asian nations are struggling to envision a United States that offers a tenable alternative to China’s ‘predatory economics’.

In light of the confused US regional vision, Japan has made progress on a free trade agreement with the European Union and has managed to salvage the TPP under the TPP-11 framework. It achieved the suspension of only 20 clauses from the original TPP — even without the lure of US market access for Malaysia and Vietnam. This leaves space for the United States to return to the agreement and maintains its high-standard rules and norms.

It is uncertain whether Canada — the second-biggest economy in the agreement — will ratify the deal after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s no show at the signing of the TPP-11 agreement. Wrapping up these efforts will be vital to counteract the narrative developing countries draw from China’s success — one suggesting that authoritarianism is the governance model best-equipped for growth.

The real game changers in 2018 for Washington’s (and thus Tokyo’s) Asia strategy will be how the United States tackles its China trade gripes and the North Korea dilemma.

The United States’ combative stance towards China was confirmed in the 2017 National Security Strategy, and this stance will only strengthen if the Trump administration perceives Chinese non-compliance on North Korea. Decisions to implement solar panel tariffs or CFIUS reform would provoke tit-for-tat retaliation from China. Investigations into forced technology transfers and dumping of base metals by China will further demand action from the Trump administration — an administration that is firmly cognisant of the threat posed by China’s state capitalism and monopolistic industrial strategy. The US breaking from Europe and Japan by acting unilaterally outside of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to challenge China risks trade war.

Tokyo therefore faces a tough decision about how long it wants to appear supportive of Washington’s tougher economic measures against China. Japanese government officials privately express that a US government with a more confrontational approach towards China than the Obama administration is in their strategic interest. However, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is determined to realise mutual state visits with Xi Jinping, and the uncertainty over Washington’s Asia policy and over cooperation on North Korea is pushing Tokyo to improve relations with its big neighbour.

Tensions between the United States and North Korea are putting Japan in a tight situation. The rhetoric and frustration from the Trump administration unfailingly results in escalatory North Korean reactions, which together increase the likelihood of war. Mixed messages from Washington have also confused allies about the official US position on North Korea. China and Russia have called for de-escalation and are encouraging the United States to engage in dialogue with North Korea after the Kim regime allegedly expressed its willingness to Russia.

Japan is holding out for ‘pressure maximisation’, specifically an oil embargo. Tokyo hopes this strategy will force North Korea to call for negotiations in which the United States and its allies have a strong position. Ultimately Japan needs to decide with the United States and South Korea the conditions and end goal for entering dialogue with the North, but such a dialogue is complicated by the mutual distrust between the Moon and Trump administrations and by the intense geo-economic pressure Seoul has been under from Beijing.

Japan must help find a middle road to enter negotiations between the United States’ demand for North Korea to denuclearise and the Chinese and Russian ‘freeze-for-freeze’ proposal. This could be the last chance to reach a dialogue. If the parties cannot reach one soon, Japan could face the possibility of a catastrophic war on its doorstep.

If tense deterrence becomes the status quo, Japan will continue to shore up its traditional defence capabilities. There will be more insistent suggestions that Japan should acquire or share nuclear deterrence capabilities with the United States, and the defence community and Japanese public will become more supportive of constitutional amendment.

These are all movements that could, if mishandled, politically disseat Abe and could derail Japan’s relations with China and South Korea.

In 2017, Abe successfully juggled his foreign policy priorities and domestic agenda. ‘Trumpian’ insensitivity vis-a-vis China and North Korea could push Japan’s balancing act into chaos in 2018.

Harry Dempsey is a research associate at Asia Pacific Initiative.

The Asia Pacific Initiative is a non-profit independent Tokyo-based think tank aiming to draw up a vision to construct the liberal international order in Asia Pacific in pursuit of peace and prosperity in the region. It is the organizationally restructured development of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation (RJIF), which was founded in September 2011. Using over five years of activities by RJIF as a base, we started on our second stage in July 2017.

This article was first published on EastAsia Forum on 20 January 2018.


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