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The Elephant in the Room: An Imminent Danger to the Japan-US Alliance

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The Elephant in the Room: An Imminent Danger to the Japan-US Alliance

During his state visit, Kishida was unusually blunt about the dangers current trends in U.S. politics pose to the alliance.

The Elephant in the Room: An Imminent Danger to the Japan-US Alliance

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio (front) delivers remarks to a joint session of Congress as Vice President Kamala Harris (back left) and House Speaker Mike Johnson (back right) look on, Apr. 11, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/ Speaker Mike Johnson

On April 11, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio became only the second Japanese prime minister to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Kishida’s speech was received positively, yet he surprised many with his bold statements. 

While acknowledging the current challenges in the world and political climate in the United States, Kishida did not hold back in sharing his concerns. As he urged the United States to continue playing a leading role in the world, he made a thinly veiled criticism of the Republican members (“I detect an undercurrent of self-doubt among some Americans about what your role in the world should be”). 

He also pledged Japan’s continued support to a democratic Ukraine in its fight against Russian expansionism: “Japan will continue to stand with Ukraine.”

While touching upon the Japan-U.S. alliance in a positive and forward-looking way, Kishida also chose to share his worries. “As I often say, Ukraine of today may be East Asia of tomorrow,” Kishida warned, while Republican Speaker Mike Johnson, who has been blocking a $95 billion aid package to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, looked on. “Without U.S. support, how long before the hopes of Ukraine would collapse under the onslaught from Moscow?” the Japanese prime minister asked.

Instead of the traditional Japanese focus on soft stories denoting the former foes’ transition to allies, Kishida delivered a blunt assessment of the dangers that the alliance is facing. He went so far as to imply that counterforces to democracy are to be found within the United States. It showed Japan’s urgent concern about the forthcoming U.S. election in November.  

As a leader whose country counts the United States as its sole ally, Kishida needed to frankly convey Japan’s worries in terms of the influence that former President Donald Trump, the de-facto Republican presidential nominee, exercises over the current GOP. Given that Trump dismantled traditional Republican foreign policy principles centered around building a strong and global U.S. presence, Kishida sees the upcoming election as much more than a case of traditional partisan policy differences. 

Simply put, no U.S. president before Trump ever entertained the idea of favoring Russia, an undemocratic foe, over U.S. allies. Trump recently encouraged Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to purportedly “delinquent” NATO member states. While President Joe Biden slammed Trump’s misguided comments as “dumb, shameful, dangerous, un-American,” Trump’s bombastic pronouncements excite naïve voters who may ultimately return him to the White House. 

The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, took Trump’s NATO remarks so seriously that it added a provision to the Fiscal Year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to prevent a U.S. president from leaving NATO without Senate approval or an act of Congress. This addition preemptively safeguards against Trump’s threats. It was seen as necessary after the GOP expunged its traditional principles of strong national defense and support for institutions, allies, and partners.  

Trump has made similar disparaging remarks about Japan’s financial contribution to the Japan-U.S. alliance many times before. Although there is no safeguard to preserve the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, the irony is that a termination of the bilateral treaty may not even be needed to weaken the alliance. Doubts about Washington’s commitment toward Article 5 of NATO’s collective defense paradigm suffice to erode trust. Trump’s thoughtless comments, calculated or otherwise, remain uniquely dangerous to the alliance’s core foundation.  

With shifts in the regional security environment, Japan has been beefing up its national security strategy, including plans to increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2027 and cementing bilateral defense cooperation with other major democratic partners, such as Australia and the United Kingdom. Japan has also been strengthening ties with NATO in the face of regional security challenges. However, these developments cannot serve as a substitute for collective self-defense with the United States under the latter’s nuclear umbrella. Sustained confidence in U.S. extended deterrence is, therefore, imperative.  

During his visit to Washington, Kishida might have tried to push for some commitment from the U.S. in terms of a possible post-November contingency. Biden and Kishida released a solid Joint Leaders’ Statement to celebrate “new era of U.S.-Japan strategic cooperation” to “realize a free and open Indo-Pacific and world,” discussing the rule of law, regional threats, and re-affirming the importance of upholding the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Notwithstanding the mutual history, legacy, and efforts of the past seven decades, Kishida, who previously dealt with Trump as Abe’s foreign minister, must know that such welcome commitments are not guaranteed under a second Trump administration. Kishida is surely aware of the challenges Japan would face were Trump to win again.  

The prospect of a second Trump term is not far-fetched. The world has seen this movie before, but a second term in which Trump no longer needs to consider re-election could be even more challenging. Trump’s isolationist tendencies, together with a cavalier attitude that does not distinguish ally from foe, nor dictatorship from democracy, would make the United States an unpredictable and unreliable partner. Trump’s impulsive foreign policy, or a lack thereof, was seen clearly in his dealings with Kim Jong Un. This did nothing to discourage or limit North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program, nor to make the region safer. 

Trump’s threats toward the Japan-U.S. alliance during his first term were mostly verbal mumbles and complaints. In a second term, however, his transactional disposition may push Trump toward ill-advised Faustian military and economic deals with U.S. adversaries. This is truly a troubling prospect for Japan. If Trump were to weaken U.S. support for Japan (or Taiwan or South Korea), the status quo and fragile peace in the region would certainly be deleteriously impacted.