There can be no doubt that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has his hands full navigating the North Korean nuclear crisis and Trump’s aggressive response towards it. However, Abe could make his job easier by adding a third plank to his two-pronged foreign policy grand strategy. Abe should immediately embark on a political and diplomatic outreach to the entire East Asia region with special emphasis on his closest neighbors China and South Korea. By limiting his options, Abe is leading Japan down one of two risky paths. The first one, entrapment, could have deadly consequences as the North Korean crisis reaches a head. Pyongyang has sent missiles flying over the skies of Japan and Trump in return is promising “fire and fury.” The other could be a partial or total abandonment by the United States leaving Japan exposed militarily to North Korea and China.
So how did we get here? Fearing either of these two outcomes, as columnist William Pesek has noted, Abe has decided to go “all in” on his bets on the Trump administration to the point of a “Trump obsession.” In doing so, Abe is hoping to have influence over any Trump administration decisions on the course of events in North Korea and beyond. Abe has gone out of his way to please the American president by tiptoeing delicately around a number of issues. Abe has said very little concerning America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords and even less about Trump’s comments regarding the Charlottesville protests. Most other international leaders have reacted with opprobrium to both events.
Indeed, Abe has developed a close relationship with Trump, golfing at Mar-a-Lago and speaking with him over the phone 13 times including four times over the course of a recent week to discuss the North Korean crisis. In February, Abe promised in his meetings with Trump in Florida a program designed to create 700,000 U.S. jobs through private-public infrastructure and new opportunities worth $450 billion over the next 10 years. This was accompanied by announcements from Toyota pledging $10 billion worth of capital investments over the next five years and SoftBank intending to put $50 billion into U.S. investment strategies.
For some analysts, Abe’s position towards Trump is inevitable. Indeed, Abe should be given credit for successfully schmoozing Trump and securing “iron-clad” defense pledges from Mattis, Tillerson and Trump himself. In fact, Trump views Abe as a confidant and a personal friend. Abe is right to cultivate this type of relationship as it serves well Japan’s commercial and security interests. However, by seeking in excess Trump’s favor to the detriment of other diplomatic opportunities, Abe has put Japan in the very perilous position of facing entrapment or abandoned by the United States. As Sentaku magazine has noted, Trump is “unbridled and unconventional beyond imagination” and it is unlikely Japan could gain influence in a grand bargain with China that would sacrifice Japan in return for a denuclearized North Korea. Trump himself during the campaign threatened to pull out all American troops from the Pacific and suggested Japan should get its own nukes. He already scrapped the Trans-Pacific Partnership against Japan’s wishes while “putting Japan on notice” with new negotiations to reduce America’s trade deficit. As former State Department staffer Jeremy Shapiro points out, “other leaders have tried to cultivate close relations with Trump and got burned.”
Alternatively, if Trump or Kim Jong-un were to set off a chain of events that lead to war on the Korean peninsula, Japan would be obliged, i.e., entrapped, under treaty obligation to actively take part in the action putting Japan’s population at a great risk. Japan should expect Trump to exact a high price in blood and treasure in the immediate build towards a conflict and during a war itself for the heretofore protection of Japan. Given Trump’s obsession with loyalty, any perceived sense of betrayal in a time of crisis by Abe especially after having built a close relationship with the prime minister would likely result in America’s swift and complete abandonment of Japan.
Abe’s foreign policy vision is the culprit to blame for this potentially deadly dichotomy now confronting Japan. Abe’s views of international relations are based on the doctrine of national survival via self-help in an anarchic world. Like Trump, Abe sees security in zero-sum terms. Japan must do everything in its power to counterbalance the rise of China. For all of the hype around Abenomics, the real goal is the strengthening of Japan’s security status in the world. In such a balance-of-power world, economic strength is only a means to project military prowess.
In Abe’s quest to see Japan thrive in a chaotic world, he has embarked on a two pronged foreign policy. The first part is the establishment of an autonomous foreign policy long coveted by Abe and other conservative politicians in which Japan can project independent geo-olitical power throughout the region and indeed the world. He has made numerous moves in this direction including a reinterpretation of the article 9 to allow for “collective-self defense,” i.e., the dispatching of SDF troops to assist allies in military conflicts overseas.
The second part entails building a strong relationship with the United States while building the first part of his policy. Japan is not yet politically or militarily powerful enough to stand on its own two feet. Japan is still constitutionally prohibited to having its own military and the Self Defense Force it currently has is no match for North Korea’s nuclear weapons or China’s military strength.
The problem with Abe’s “dog-eat-dog” world vision is that it can lead to escalation and a security competition among nations or, what is called in the field of international relations, a security dilemma. This is a situation when one country’s actions to improve its own security – usually with peaceful intent – other countries react by matching or bettering it. The end result is an increased likelihood of conflict which is the opposite of the original peaceful intention. The current situation on the Korean peninsula is a security dilemma but on steroids. With every move the Koreans make in the interest of professed self -preservation, Trump feels he must match it or better it. Kim Jong-un in turn moves again in a spiral of one-upmanship both rhetorically (“fire and fury” vs “enveloping fire” around Guam) and militarily with each inciting the other.
The alternative to Abe’s competitive security vision is a diplomatic outreach to the entire region. Abe, to his credit, has made the rounds to many nations which have paid off in stronger ties to a number of ASEAN countries, Australia and India. But the problem has been the ulterior motive to this initiative. The main objective has been to enlist countries in an alliance to counteract China’s rise. Abe needs to shift from a policy of security encirclement of China to a policy of wholesale regional cooperation and inclusion with China and South Korea at its center. As Pesek emphasizes, the economic benefits of a reinvigorated commercial partnership with China are clear and obvious for a slow growth economy such as Japan. Also, there could be no greater motivation for further economic integration in Asia than Trump’s threats to China, Japan and South Korea to address America’s trade deficit or face tariffs and sanctions.
On the political side of the ledger, better relations with the region particularly with its closest neighbors, China and South Korea, would give further impetus to the efforts of isolating North Korea. More broadly, it would bring political stability to a region which is in dire need of it especially as a counter weight to the erratic policies of the Trump administration. For Abe, the appeal in pursuing such an initiative would lie in the fostering of deeper trust and friendship with Japan’s neighbors that would ultimately lead to a better regional understanding of his efforts to build up Japan’s defense and strategic capabilities.
To underpin this strategy of Asian outreach, the development of regional institutions would be helpful. As of this moment, there are no permanent regional organizations dedicated to the discussion of regional political and security issues. As political scientist Robert Jervis long ago explained, security relationships, like economic markets can suffer from imperfections and breakdown as a result of insufficient information and transparency. Institutions bridge this gap through vast information flows between group members and improve trust among leaders through regular and periodic face-to-face meetings. Witness how the recent BRICS forum helped to resolve quickly the border tensions between India and China. Institutions also assist in creating rules and norms for nations that act as guidelines for international conduct. Establishing protocols of behavior in the security realm would be particularly useful in managing relations in the South and East China Seas.
Diplomatic and political outreach to China and the rest of Asia does not mean Japan is turning its back on the United States. Eschewing its relationship with its most important and trusted ally is not an option for any Japanese leader. However, complementary efforts to improve ties with regional neighbor should be welcome by all including the Trump administration. For Japan, it would be a salutary way out of its current predicament of facing either American abandonment or entrapment.
Carlos Ramirez is an associate professor at the Faculty of International Studies, Kindai University, Osaka.