Views of President Donald Trump among Japan’s policy elites are complex. Ask a foreign policy expert about the current occupant of the White House, and most would probably find many things to criticize. But if you ask them if they miss the Obama presidency, most of the same people would also respond negatively—perhaps more so.
Japanese policymakers despaired of Obama’s so-called “21st-century approach” when contrasted against China’s 19th-century habit of using raw power to intimidate all countries in the region to build up its own sphere of influence. While President Obama was talking about possible cooperation with China on global issues in a bid to make a responsible stakeholder out of a rival, Beijing was busy sending military ships to the Senkakus, muscling the Philippines out of Scarborough Shoal, and creating artificial islands in the South China Sea. Since the end of the Cold War, Japan had continuously warned the United States about China. For all of President Trump’s various shortcomings, it looks like Japan finally has someone in the White House who properly recognizes and appreciates the challenge.
Although Japan never openly opposed the United States’ optimistic engagement policy towards China (which first flowered during the Clinton Administration), Japanese Sinologists had little confidence that China would ever become a liberal democracy. Most of Japan’s China experts argued, based on 2,000 years of experience, that China would never change its culture or nature: China was and always will be China. From the time of Confucius in the fifth century B.C., for the Chinese the world has had only one heaven and one ruler—the Emperor of China. All non-Chinese “barbarians” have to acknowledge Chinese preeminence.
Japan has never subscribed to this view. Japan’s historic approach toward the Indo-Pacific was to maintain its own sovereignty while preserving economic, cultural as well as political interactions with its neighbors. In the face of China’s recent rise, Japan is still determined to sustain its sovereignty and prosperity. The present international order and regional balance of power, with the U.S.-Japan Alliance as its central pillar, has made that possible. Japan wants to sustain this status quo.
For its part, China has consistently challenged this status quo since at least 1992 when it adopted its Territorial Legislation, unilaterally declaring the inclusion of Senkaku and South China Sea islands as “the land territory of the People’s Republic of China.” After attempts at accommodation under the Clinton Administration, President Bush entered office prepared to take the China challenge seriously. His administration’s first Quadrennial Defense Review, published in September 2001, referred to the China challenge for the first time, stating that “[t]he possibility exists that a military competitor with a formidable resource base will emerge in the [Asia) region.” Japan and the United States were planning to discuss China during their annual meeting between foreign and defense ministers during the UN General Assembly in New York that September when 9/11 happened. China quickly agreed to support the U.S. global anti-terrorism effort, buying Beijing at least a decade to continue its modernization effort while Washington was focused elsewhere. The Chinese started investing heavily in renewing their aging military and in developing modern power-projection capabilities, including building up a large blue water navy—a first for China in modern times. And China has not been shy in leveraging its new capabilities. Outposts across the South China Sea were gradually built up and occupied one by one, and from 2008 on, Beijing began sending patrol vessels into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus.
President Obama was nevertheless not moved to take a harder line when he came to power. The Obama Administration was executing exactly what liberal intellectuals in its orbit were advocating: focusing on cooperation on global issues coupled with deference to China’s so-called core interests (including Taiwan and human rights catastrophes in Tibet and Xinjiang)—all in the hope of shaping China into a more liberal actor that would share the U.S. burden of underwriting the existing international order. Until its last day, the Obama Administration believed China was “shapeable.”
Throughout this period, policy consensus was not monolithic. A minority of Washington’s Sinologists warned against the efficacy of engagement. James Mann’s 2007 book The China Fantasy: Why Capitalism Will Not Bring Democracy to China, for example, argued that the central problem with the concept of “engagement” was in effect the question: “Who is engaging whom?” Are we really engaging China, or is China engaging the international system to its own benefit? And who is changing whom—are we changing China, or is the international system changing to accommodate Chinese behavior? And to its credit, the United States did do a fair bit of “hedging” on its bet that China would come around. The Obama Administration strengthened the U.S.-Japan alliance, enhanced military cooperation with Australia and the Philippines, and embraced India and Vietnam as close partners. All of these efforts were more than welcomed in Tokyo and other Asian capitals.
However, the priority mission was always to engage China. Obama’s trip to China in 2016 is a case in point. That July, Beijing had refused to accept the verdict of the International Tribunal in Hague which overwhelmingly supported Manila’s claims in the South China Sea, calling the ruling “just a piece of paper.” A month later, in August, China had sent some 200 to 300 fishing vessels to the Senkakus. Right after these events, President Obama visited Hangzhou, and issued a Fact Sheet reflecting U.S. priorities with Beijing: among them Peacekeeping, Refugees, Maritime Risk Reduction and Cooperation, Iraq, Space Cooperation, Afghanistan, Nuclear Security and Liability, Combating Wildlife Trafficking, Oceans Cooperation, Strengthening Development Cooperation, Africa, and Global Health. There was no mention of censuring China’s coercive and destabilizing behavior.
This was the regional strategic backdrop to President Trump’s election. Japan was, of course, as surprised as anyone by the results. Tokyo, however, was quick to act. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quickly flew to New York to meet President-elect Trump in his offices in Trump Tower. This was a risky and unprecedented move, but the gambit paid off for Japan, enabling Abe to take Trump’s measure on international issues, build a relationship with his future counterpart, and deliver a clear message about the importance of the region and the challenge posed by China. In February 2017, when Abe met Trump after his inauguration, they agreed to a joint declaration that was unprecedented in its scope and ambition. The impact was twofold.
First, it sent a strong warning signal to China. The two leaders confirmed all the fundamental principles which we in Tokyo considered to form the foundation for peace and stability in the region: The United States’ renewed commitment to the Indo-Pacific, to nuclear deterrence against territorial aggression, as well as a recommitment to the pursuit of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. “The United States will strengthen its presence in the region, and Japan will assume larger roles and responsibilities in the alliance,” the communiqué read, and further instructed foreign and defense ministers to “review the respective roles, missions, and capabilities of the two countries.” The outlines of the big picture were agreed to by Trump himself, and all other “details” would be handled by senior ministers. This first declaration reassured not only Japan but also allies and partners across the region.
Second, it altered the decision-making on the conduct of the bilateral alliance. The declaration was drafted jointly, with the Japanese side contributing equally—if not more—to its content. Maximum pressure toward North Korea, a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, the importance of Southeast Asia—all of these concepts were, to a certain extent, suggestions from the Japanese-side. For some Americans, it may be easy to overlook the significance of this transition for Japan. Since the end of World War II, Japan’s foreign policy has been more or less responsive to, and heavily shaped by, U.S. preferences and influence. Japanese bureaucrats and policymakers had become accustomed to depending on international pressure to inform Japanese decision-making—so much so that there is even a term for it in Japanese: “Gai-atsu.” Psychologically, this was a critical breakthrough. So, for the first time, Japanese officials were jointly formulating strategic directions and approaches to geopolitical challenges in the Indo-Pacific with our American counterparts, rather than soliciting their views and providing our critique as we had historically done.
Since then, Trump has called Abe at every important occasion—before and after his meeting with Xi Jinping, for example, and as he planned his opening toward North Korea. According to media reports, as of May 2019, Abe and Trump had met 10 times, talked over the phone 30 times, and played golf 4 times. This volume of engagement, as measured in telephone calls, was already quadruple the number of engagements that Abe had with Obama. This is by far the most intimate relationship that Trump has established among foreign leaders.
The Trump Administration’s implementation of its confrontational policy with China, however, has caused considerable confusion, especially among the broader public. As former Vice President Joseph Biden argued in his recent Foreign Affairs essay, “the most effective way to meet that challenge [China] is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors.” When President Trump used economic leverage not only against China but also against its allies and partners, it raised doubts in many minds across the region as to the credibility of American security guarantees and commitments. Japan is no exception. A recent Nikkei poll conducted in January 2020 revealed that 72 percent of Japanese don’t want President Trump to be re-elected, precisely because of this uncertainty.
So, do we want, if possible, to go back to the world before Trump? For many decision-makers in Tokyo, the answer is probably no, because having a poorly implemented but fundamentally correct strategy is better than having a well-implemented but ambiguous strategy. We just don’t want to see the United States go back again to engagement, which will undoubtedly come at our, and other Asian countries’ expense.
We certainly do not consider the U.S.-Japan alliance to be transactional in nature. That said, we would prefer an alliance that both better serves our national interests while also serving broader U.S. interests. In plainer language, an alliance explicitly focused on China is better than one which is vague and unfocused, or worse yet, afraid to confront the greatest challenge. How to share that burden is a matter of alliance management. In other words, it is a process matter. It is important to re-affirm that an alliance is a means, not an end, to serve our shared national interests.
Western Europeans, in particular, may be puzzled by this kind of calculus, but that is merely the result of Europe’s own economically transactional approach when it comes to China, which has prioritized business ties and had leaders look the other way as China has thrown its weight around in its neighborhood. For countries on the receiving end of Chinese coercion, a tougher U.S. line on China is more important than any other aspect of U.S. policy. Asian elites—in Taipei, Manila, Hanoi, New-Delhi—increasingly calculate that Trump’s unpredictable and transactional approach is a lesser evil compared to the danger of the United States going back to cajoling China to be a “responsible stakeholder.” A prominent pundit went so far as to assert that “Asian elites have grown oddly sanguine about a Trump second term.”
The truth is that, facing continuous pressure from Beijing, Asian countries are desperately seeking continued U.S. commitment and presence in the region, and the U.S.-Japan alliance is a key component of that. While quietly resenting President Trump boasting about how much he manages to squeeze from allies, most countries would be ready to consider a revised form of burden-sharing provided that U.S. commitments remain firm. There is a real opening here to set a healthy new dynamic for the region that could guarantee stability for several generations.
Of course, a more sophisticated implementation of a strategy for balancing China—one that leverages the strengths and support of like-minded allies like Japan—would be most welcome. Whoever resides in the White House in January 2021, Tokyo’s expectation is to continue our bilateral strategic discussion on equal terms, focusing our shared efforts on wisely implementing the current strategy objective of maintaining U.S. primacy and presence in the Indo-Pacific in support of the existing rules-based international system that we have all benefitted so greatly from.