Mr. Donald Trump will take office as the 45th President of the United States later today. As I ceased to update my blog from personal reasons after he won the election on November 9, I should publish at this timing what I think about Japan and the United States under President Trump.
In the field of international commerce, Trump’s intension to withdraw from already signed Tran-Pacific Partnership agreement is certainly a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as Japan just ratified it only a month ago. On national security front, however, Abe must be thinking, or will soon start thinking, to take advantage of the advent of President Trump for realizing his dream of “departure from the postwar regime.” In other words, Abe potentially has an incentive to “deal” with the new president of the United States.
Abe has repeatedly said “Economy First” since he retook office in December 2012. But what he really wanted to achieve was always the realization of his dream: Departure from the Postwar Regime. For that purpose, he successfully passed the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets in 2013 and the new National Security Acts in 2015. The increasing threats by China and North Korea and growing public concerns toward them have helped to push the ambition of the hawkish leader.
And now, the challenge left for Abe is no doubt the revision of Constitution not only to lower the threshold of Japan’s use of force but also to secure the pre-war value of Japan. Abe and the LDP have prepared the legal procedures for the revision in the last four years. Yet they will have to spend more time to realize the revision as the majority of Japanese people still hold pacifist sentiment which they have nurtured for more than seven decades. Under the normal condition, it is uncertain whether even Abe, whose cabinet enjoys very high approval rate and whose party maintains absolute majority in the Diet, will be able to revise Constitution, especially article 9, in his term of office. (That is why he wants to dissolve the Diet in order to stay longer as a prime minister.)
But what if the outer condition surrounding Japan changes rapidly and dramatically? For example, if President Trump demands much larger defense responsibility to Japan as a condition for the U.S defense commitment, or if his administration either deliberately or carelessly raises disastrous tension in the western Pacific, Abe may find a new rationale to hurry up the revision of Constitution. At the least, he will be able to accelerate the strengthening of Japan’s military posture and further promote his assertive diplomacy toward neighboring countries. In this sense, President Trump may provide just what Abe wants. For his part, Trump also seems to be willing to “bargain” with not only China and/or Russia but also with traditional allies, including Japan.
Make no mistake that I am insisting Abe is pro-American. He is a nationalistic restorationist in the first place. But he believes correctly that Japan needs alliance with the United States in order to deal with China. Moreover, he knows correctly that it is politically wise and effective to use the strengthening of the alliance as a cover for “departure from postwar regime.”
During the election campaign, Trump said he would be willing to withdraw U.S. forces in Japan if Japan does not increase payment for the USFJ. The truth is that the government of Japan pays more than seventy five percent of the cost and it is cheaper for the American taxpayers to have it stationed in Japan rather than to have it in the continental United States. But the new president does not care about the truth. I will not be surprised to hear Trump saying “If Japan is paying seventy five percent, let it pay hundred.” The odium of Japanese people aside, Trump’s claim will not be acceptable for Abe, a genuine nationalist.
However, the hawkish Japanese prime minister would be interested in a different bargain with Trump to increase Japan’s defense responsibility in terms of budget and behavior. In the 1980s when Japan was severely criticized over trade imbalance with the United States, another nationalist Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone increased Japan’s defense budget by apparently responding to the Reagan administration’s request. Abe may want to follow Nakasone’s example. Domestically, Abe will be able to legitimize the increase in defense budget as Japan’s own decision to match the military buildup by China and North Korea, while appealing to the public that he turns down Trump’s humiliating request to pay more cost for the U.S. forces in Japan. President Trump who seems to view the world through the lens of money will appreciate this bargain, so will the U.S. national security experts who are increasingly concerned with China’s aggressive military behaviors in the Western Pacific.
Trump, as a Republican nominee, once made a comment to encourage Japan to go nuclear. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, tried to possess nuclear weapons when he was a prime minister during 1957 to 1960. Tomomi Inada, the current Defense Minister and one of the closest aides to Abe, is seemingly in favor of Japan’s acquiring nukes. Abe may be interested in it, too. Should it be the case, however, the anti-nuke sentiment among Japanese people and the institutional difficulties arising from the NPT system would deter Abe from seriously considering the possession of nuclear weapons.
Instead, Abe can reinforce Japan’s defense posture in other ways. As very restrictive and ambiguous articles regarding the exercise of collective self-defense right illustrates, the National Security Acts of 2015 are far behind what Abe originally tried to realize. But it was Abe who explained that these laws were the necessary and sufficient responses to the growing threats from China and North Korea less than two years ago. If nothing special happens, it would not be politically feasible to renew them.
Here again, recall the Trump’s criticism on Japan. He said “If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do anything. They can sit home and watch Sony television.” If the new president of the United States continues urging Japan to increase its own military responsibilities, Abe will possibly find a good excuse to revise the National Security Acts or even Constitution Article 9.
Let us watch very carefully what kind of change President Trump will bring, not only to the United States but also to the world. For good or for evil, no one can be a bystander.