Japan's conservative government has tried to contain China's hegemonic ambitions by building alliances with the US. This plan may have to change after President-elect Donald Trump takes office, says Martin Fritz.
The Japanese love to plan and prepare everything down to the smallest detail while leaving nothing to chance. In this sense, the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency was one of the worst things that could have happened for Japan's foreign and security policy.
The establishment in Tokyo was in no way prepared for the outcome of the US election. During his campaign, Trump called into question many of the certainties about the relationship between Tokyo and Washington – whether it was the presence of US troops or the nuclear umbrella. But Tokyo did not react to this, expecting that Hillary Clinton would be elected.
Now after Trump's surprising win, ministerial bureaucrats in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki government quarter are trying to reassure themselves that Trump's apparent anti-Japanese disposition was just rhetoric. Government advisors are assuaging concerns by saying that political necessities will bring Trump back down the earth.
Making false assumptions?
These comforting assessments of Trump's intentions may prove to be misguided. The Japanese establishment should not forget that for decades Trump has sharply criticized Japan as a freeloader that benefits from US foreign policy and free access to the US market. Trump's perspective does contain some truth. Indeed, Japan's defense budget is only one percent of GDP, which is small in international comparison. And Toyota continues to export its luxury sedan Lexus from Japan to North America.
US President Barack Obama focused his foreign policy toward the Pacific. This included a promise to Japan that its military alliance with the US would apply to a small group of Japanese islands that are also claimed by China. In trusting the US position, Japan has actively guarded these uninhabited islands from Chinese encroachment, and more than once risked military escalation.
But Trump will not put US soldiers in harms way over a few Japanese boulders in the East China Sea, and he is not likely to repeat Obama's promises of protection. He is likely, however, to speak frankly with China about trade issues. This could adversely affect the interests of many Japanese companies that use China as a workbench.
Japan's new strategy vis-à-vis China
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's strategy to contain China's hegemonic ambition in Asia with US assistance was presumptuous from the start. China's economy and power will continue to grow while Japan, because of demographic reasons, has most likely reached its peak. The future will be based on cooperation not confrontation between Japan and China.
Japan needs to give up its confrontational China policy and this is a step that Tokyo may be unable to avoid during Trump's presidency. But Abe is the wrong man for this. Like the bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki, he maintains illusions about Trump and talks about trust. This may be the most important factor in Japanese business relationships, but not in American.
Abe's opponent and potential successor Shigeru Ishiba put the situation in a nutshell: The country of Japan itself will be challenged by Trump. The government in Tokyo should recognize the sign of the times and learn to stand on its own two feet politically, militarily and without leaning on the US.
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