As always, management — politically, bureaucratically and through other levels — is critical to healthy bilateral alliances. The U.S.-Japan relationship is no different and the alliance managers on both sides have been working in overdrive over the past year amidst some growing challenges. During the early days of the Trump administration, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looked to nurture personal relations with U.S. President Donald Trump in order to promote and protect Japan’s security alliance with Washington — amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula and an increasingly assertive regional posture by China. This was most evident with the repeated summits between the two leaders, but was also complemented, crucially, by an equally important frequency of high-level exchanges between foreign and defense ministries, at various levels and on numerous topics from North Korea to space security.
Despite frequent communication and unprecedented summitry, there remain some key areas of uncertainty in the U.S.-Japan relationship, which will continue to need careful management in the coming months. First, on trade issues, Tokyo has gradually moved over the past year from a subdued critique of the Trump’s administration’s protectionist moves to a slightly more public campaign aimed at defending the international trade regime. Indeed, earlier this month Japan inked a massive Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union (EU), which combines nearly a third of global economy and 40 percent of world trade. At the signing ceremony, Abe was pointed when he noted there are “no winners” from protectionism, a clear sign aimed at Washington’s heavy-handed imposition of high tariffs on a number of its key allies, including Japan, Canada and the E.U.
Meanwhile, the tariffs might just be the starting point in renewed trade tensions between Tokyo and Washington. The Trump administration continues to push Japan towards launching negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement — a position that the Abe administration has thus far resisted due to its valid concerns that a bilateral deal would be counterproductive to Japan’s interests considering Trump’s harsh stance on trade issues. The Abe administration is also still reeling from its disappointment at the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — which has now been re-formulated into a TPP-11, minus the United States. Abe is also understandably flustered that all the work gone into bilateral negotiations with the U.S. over TPP may not be considered as the baseline for any new deal. Now, Abe is aware that he cannot slow-drag this issue much longer, but he also should be firm that Japan will not enter bilateral negotiations without an equal footing. Japan’s ability to maintain resistance to Washington’s entreaties for a bilateral trade discussion — and the consequences of such opposition — will be a crucial area to watch in the coming months.
The second key area will be on regional security matters and the alliance’s adaptability to changing geopolitical shifts. For the first year of the Trump administration, Abe managed to impress Trump with his acumen and advice on security matters — especially on North Korea — and appeared to mitigate risks to the U.S.-Japan alliance. The Abe administration initially appeared confident with the Trump administration’s tough stance on security matters and was in lock-step with Washington regarding its “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at curtailing Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Abe was blindsided, however, by the news of Trump’s summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which took place in Singapore this past June, and continues to remain focused on securing Japan’s security interests — notably the need to address North Korea’s medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles systems before any meaningful sanctions reduction occurs.
Officially, Japan remains cautiously supportive of the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic process. Behind this thin veneer, however, there is deep anxiety in Tokyo on the way forward and even deeper skepticism on the intentions of Pyongyang to denuclearize its arsenal. The cancellation of the U.S.-ROK Ulchi Freedom Guardian games — a pillar to regional deterrence efforts — further escalated anxieties in Japan that the Trump administration is willing to favor a transactional approach on national security issues, rather than deferring to alliance coordination. The announcement to cancel the games is especially concerning for Japan because of the incendiary language that Trump has used by describing the exercises as “provocative” and “expensive.” Indeed, Trump’s language on the war games reemphasizes concerns in Japan that Trump views alliances in the region as a financial and security burden, rather than an essential component to U.S.-Asia policy and regional stability. Behind all of this concern, of course, is the looming challenge of China and its destabilizing activities in the region, including the East China Sea, where it continues to send its maritime militia and air assets around the Senkaku islands.
Despite these real, emerging concerns, the reality is that Japan-U.S. relations remain solid for the most part and there should be little concern about Washington suddenly casting Tokyo out in the cold on trade or security issues. Abe, who is due for a critical leadership test this coming fall during elections of his Liberal Democratic Party, remains a strong confidante of Trump and — while it is unrealistic to think that Japan can, or ever could, completely mold U.S. policy in Asia — the current administration in Tokyo has the strongest influence in Washington in many years. Now is a time for alliance management and shrewd diplomacy from Japan.
J. Berkshire Miller is a senior fellow with the EastWest Institute. He is also a senior visiting fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs and the Asian Forum Japan—both based in Tokyo. This article has previously been published on the EastWest Institute Policy Innovation Blog.