Trump’s disdain for Japan is insulting and high-risk

Jul 3, 2019

In his forays abroad, US President Donald Trump increasingly resembles a bull carrying his own china shop on his back, to be set down for wrecking at diplomatic confabs. At the moment a grave crisis seems imminent with regard to Iran. As former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer notes, soon Trump will come to a fork in the road to Tehran where he must choose between: a diplomatic climbdown on his impossible demands; or a war with Iran with regional and long-term consequences far worse than the terrible damage wrought by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Either will hurt Trump’s standing with his base, the only constituency he seems to care about.

Coming in to land for his state visit to the UK, on 3 June Trump fired off offensive tweets about London Mayor Sadiq Khan: ‘Kahn [sic] reminds me very much of our very dumb and incompetent Mayor of NYC, de Blasio, who has also done a terrible job – only half his height’. Moreover, Khan ‘has been foolishly “nasty” to the visiting President… by far the most important ally’ of the UK. Khan’s office responded that ‘childish insults… should be beneath the president’.

Trump had given forewarning during the US presidential election campaign in 2016 of being strategically challenged. Candidate Trump thrice asked a foreign policy adviser: if we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them? In a New York Times interview in 2017, President Trump seemed to suggest that with a weakening US deterrent, Japan and South Korea could obtain their own nuclear arsenal to protect themselves from North Korea and China. America ‘cannot be the policeman of the world’ and the world we live in is ‘a nuclear world now’.

Shortly before heading to Osaka for the G20 summit at the end of June, Trump was reported as ruminating privately about terminating the defence treaty with Japan, because of its unfair allocation of burdens between the two countries. The Japanese are unlikely to have been amused at his musings, especially as the 1951 treaty was drafted by the victorious US to define the terms of the relationship with defeated-and-occupied Japan. On 26 June, in a TV interview with Fox News, Trump remarked that an attack on Japan would obligate the US to launch World War III and expend US lives and treasure. But if the US was attacked, the Japanese could just sit back and watch it on Sony TV.

As Princeton University’s Gary Bass wrote in The New York Times, Trump’s ‘strategic cluelessness and historical ignorance… would disqualify a person from even a modest desk job at the State Department’. Trump’s ‘ignorant, ungrateful and antagonistic’ approach would also be personally offensive to PM Shinzo Abe whose maternal grandfather, PM Nobusuke Kishi, signed the revised security treaty in 1960. Abe has invested more heavily than any other world leader in cultivating personal relations with the famously mercurial and notoriously fickle Trump.

Not to be outshone in gauche diplomacy, daughter Ivanka tried to gatecrash a leaders’ conversation at the G20 between Theresa May of the UK, Justin Trudeau of Canada, Immanuel Macron of France and IMF chief Christine Lagarde. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tartly noted that ‘being someone’s daughter actually isn’t a career qualification’ and such behaviour ‘hurts our diplomatic standing’.

What are the sophisticated, cultured, extremely polite but also increasingly edgy and flustered Japanese to make of all this? Will they respond by doubling down in the alliance with the US, seek some manner of modus vivendi and accommodation with China, begin quiet preparations for an independent nuclear deterrent, or all of the above?

The rise of China increases the importance of the US–Japan security treaty. A healthy alliance with the US is insurance for Japan against North Korea and China. Equally, however, good relations with China are a hedge against an unreliable US ally in the future. The fear of abandonment by the US is a powerful and constant undercurrent in Japanese foreign policy.

Yet the stark reality is that Japan is the linchpin of the Pacific security order and a critical component of the US rebalancing strategy for a stable Indo–Pacific region. Japan may be a declining power in the 21st century, but it still is and will remain for some time yet a ‘consequential power’. Abe was the first leader to introduce the conceptual vocabulary of a free and open Indo-Pacific as a way of integrating geography, geopolitics, democratic political values and freedom of navigation around the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Speaking at a function in Washington in February 2013, Abe memorably declared that Japan was back: ‘Japan is not, and will never be, a Tier-two country’. With advanced military forces and an increasingly active approach to regional security, the most technologically advanced, richest and best educated country in Asia cannot be written out of any equation.

An unintended consequence of Trump’s promiscuous weaponisation of tariffs and sanctions to prosecute proliferating US trade disputes is to increase Japan’s leverage at the intersection of international economics and global geopolitics. Japan’s large capital reserves, financial sophistication and technological cyber-resilience capabilities have been unexpectedly elevated in geopolitical importance. In an interesting and important analysis on 22 April, Mike Bird of The Wall Street Journal drew attention to the fact that while China’s Belt and Road Initiative hogs the world headlines, Japanese private sector-led overseas investments are bigger than China’s (US $1.67-1.54 trillion, respectively, in the third quarter of 2018), more effective as tools of development, more high end in infrastructure investment, and tainted neither by suspicions of geopolitical motivations nor fears of debt diplomacy.

Rising tensions between China and the US have also put Japan in a uniquely privileged position vis-a-vis both. Beijing needs assured access to Japanese trade, investment and markets to offset hostile US capriciousness. For its part, Washington cannot ignore Japan’s potential to check China’s growing ‘maritime, economic and technological influence’ in the Indo-Pacific region. In addition, Abe has worked hard and successfully to build personal and bilateral relations with PM Narendra Modi/India and President Vladimir Putin/Russia.

The impact of Trump as the Pacific (and liberal international) order’s disruptor-in-chief has to be assessed against this context. He continues to be widely criticised for erratic and impetuous decision-making without the minimum groundwork having been done in advance by officials; for lack of experience, expertise and grasp of foreign affairs exacerbated by hollowing out of State Department capacity through rapid churn and unfilled positions; for a purely transactional approach that ignores critical cross-issue linkages to rob US foreign policy of any strategic coherence; and for partiality to authoritarian strongmen and disdain for allies that has emboldened rivals, disheartened allies and confused potential friends.

This is the basket into which we seem intent on putting more and more of Australia’s eggs. A basket of deplorables, anyone?

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