Here in Tokyo, whether you’re having a conversation with a government official or engaging in a discussion with fellow international relations and security scholars, you will often hear things like this: “Torampu-san”—Mr. Trump, that is—“may be a bit unusual, he may be a bit too blunt at times, but compared to his predecessor he is way more reliable and trustworthy in terms of confronting China. Most importantly he is tough! Yes, Mr. Obama may have been the most intellectually sophisticated president ever, but intellectual sophistication is not what we seek in American presidents.”
A recent article in these pages by an anonymous Japanese government official, “YA,” was a rather eloquent but blunt version of this thesis. YA captured this kind of hawkish sentiment when he wrote that “Asian elites 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.’” I might quibble with the over-broad assertion that “Asian elites” as a whole are of this frame of mind, but it definitely applies to a sizeable number of foreign policy elites here in Tokyo. These people do not want to go back to the “wishy-washiness” of the Obama era, which itself typified a kind of American optimism about the transformative potential of international engagement and free trade. Indeed, Japan stands out as being among the “Trumpiest” of the advanced democracies, with the possible exception of Taiwan and Israel.
But Japan itself is not monolithic, and elite opinion does not necessarily track with broader public opinion. There was a major poll conducted recently by NHK, Japan’s national broadcasting corporation, which showed that the Japanese public overwhelmingly appreciates President Obama. 54 percent said that President Obama was the best president ever while President Trump scored only 2 points. 57 percent thought President Trump’s reelection bad for Japan and only 10 percent thought it would be a good thing. (To be fair, YA also cites an earlier poll which indicates the Japanese public’s uneasiness about President Trump’s re-election.) This affinity for President Obama may have to do with the fact that he, for the first time as a sitting American president, made a courageous decision to visit the city of Hiroshima, which was reciprocated by Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor. Candidate Trump was critical of Obama’s decision to visit Hiroshima, and given that the effort at historical reconciliation between Abe and Obama was quite popular in Japan, Trump is personally not held in particularly high regard here.
Still, YA is representative of a certain strand of Japanese thinking, and as such, his argument is worth studying. From my perspective, it has several key weaknesses. For one, the article is anchored in a static understanding of the Obama Administration’s attitudes on China. The reality is that Obama’s stance toughened through the course of his two terms—he started out much more open to engagement but became jaundiced as time went on. Indeed, one should understand the bipartisan consensus in DC today as an extension of what was already happening pre-Trump. Had Hillary Clinton won, U.S. policy would have been as tough—or even tougher—than the one that has taken shape under the Trump Administration. It’s impossible to positively prove that which did not happen, but to think that a Clinton Administration would have persisted in simply engaging China in expectation of transformative change is to miss how frustrated the Clintonites were with how slowly and imperfectly the Obama Administration had executed the fabled “Pivot to Asia.” Clinton’s goal was to take Obama’s policy and do it right.
Furthermore, YA is not sufficiently attentive to how narrow the Trump Administration’s response has been. The China challenge is a systemic challenge; it is not a challenge on a single front. The Trump Administration may be right in meeting the challenge in technological and military terms, but that response will not be enough to roll back Chinese advances. You also have to compete with China on the rule-making front. Convincing allies and partners of the United States’s resolve to remain a reliable power will require building up international institutions. Trump’s attack on the WHO amid the COVID-19 crisis was therefore counterproductive. The international body clearly has its faults, but quitting it is not a smart strategy. Working within the system and trying to revive it alongside like-minded countries builds trust and demonstrates America’s staying power. Without a doubt, China’s challenge to world order will test America’s resolve. That said, you can’t measure American resolve simply by evaluating how tough any single policy decision is on China.
YA makes an argument in favor of a “confrontational strategy” towards China. But confrontation for confrontation’s sake is both dangerous and unwise. Indeed, it’s conceivably as naïve as an engagement for engagement’s sake policy. To be fair, he does bemoan the lack of sophistication in Trump’s implementation, but the general tone of the article seems to favor a kind of toughness that tends to boil down various policy options as a choice between confrontation and capitulation. What is instead needed is a sustainable strategy of smart competition, coordinated with the allies and partners, which complicates China’s calculus in achieving its ambitions. Japan’s own policy has not been monomaniacally “tough” on China either. On the contrary, Japan has been rather conciliatory towards Beijing on the assumption that Prime Minister Abe can somehow build a relationship with President Xi Jinping and influence his behavior. Japan has been keen on realizing a state visit by Xi Jinping, which was postponed because of the corona crisis in both countries. Japan is firm in defending Japan’s territorial integrity whenever it is being challenged, but its broader approach has been nuanced.
For Japan, it has never been wise to take political sides in American politics. In this regard, YA’s article is notable for its stridently critical tone toward the Obama Administration. YA’s boss, Prime Minister Abe, has been much more careful. Abe stands out not only for managing bilateral relations under Trump, but also for having a decent relationship with President Obama. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a good personal rapport with Obama, while her dynamic with Trump is suffused with mutual distrust. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has embraced Trump fulsomely, but he couldn’t have had a worse dynamic with Obama. Abe’s stance is grounded in the sense that no matter who the President is, the United States remains the best choice for Japan, both for now and for the foreseeable future. If political polarization is the new normal in American politics, and political oscillation is something you can’t avoid, taking partisan positions is the last thing a country like Japan should want to do.
Finally, YA’s article misses what seems to me to be a fundamental shift that is taking place in the American body politic—a shift that bodes ill for Japan in the long run. Reading Vice President Joe Biden’s Foreign Affairs article (which YA cites approvingly), what stood out for me was the use of the term “forever wars.” Though it appeared only once, and though Biden does not talk about the United States pulling out from East Asia, it gives one the impression that one should no longer take for granted America’s forward-leaning global leadership. The cover of Foreign Affairs that carried the Biden article asked whether America should “come home.” “Forever wars” is a concept President Trump ran against. In Mr. Trump’s case, his rejection of endless wars and his firm stance on “America first” are just two sides of the same coin. In terms of reluctance and restraint, Democrats and Republicans are much closer to each other than they think. Despite Biden’s talk of reviving American leadership, Japanese analysts are not fully optimistic about a Biden Administration taking America back to where it was pre-Trump. But by the same token, there should be little for Japan to like about Trumpian assertiveness if it is grounded in a narrow and parochial selfishness.
All in all, the article conflates a government official’s frustration with managing the alliance on a daily basis with a mistaken read of the overall strategic picture. The alliance endures and is of critical importance both to Japan and to the region. But it is also undoubtedly showing strains. It may well be true that the United States has been too sanguine about China’s rise in the past, but it is also true that whatever “correction” has happened under President Trump has not exactly strengthened existing American alliances in the region. From Japan’s perspective, neither side of the oscillation is terribly welcome, and getting to a better understanding with a future U.S. administration, whatever party it emerges from, should be a top priority.