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Japan’s strategic hedging under Trump

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US President Trump beside Japanese Prime Minister Abe during a bilateral meeting at the G7 summit in Taormina, Sicily, Italy, 26 May, 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst).

In Brief

US President Donald Trump’s unpredictable diplomacy is downgrading US primacy and has reduced trust in US ties. America’s regional allies have powerful incentive to play a decisive role in shaping the fate of Asia’s security terrain: if they succeed in acting collectively they can help underpin the rules-based, liberal order.


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Failing to act collectively may invite the emergence of a divisive and competitive order. If they act collectively but to support a China-led order, for example, Asia will look very different in the long run.

It is not yet clear whether US leadership and military presence is retreating in the region. Trump diplomacy has recently shown some continuing commitment in the military sphere. For instance, in May 2017 Pacific Command Chief Admiral Harry Harris landed on Yonaguni island with his Japanese counterpart Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano. Joint freedom of navigation operations have also resumed in the South China Sea. And US defence spending is set to continue increasing at the expense of other important budget items.

But it is difficult to place trust in Trump’s diplomacy. Unpredictable and unstable governance from the United States jeopardises the strategic calculations of partner states, spurring the need for fundamental shifts in alliance behaviour.

Japan is no exception. Over the past six months, Japan’s foreign policy has given much attention to the new US president’s uncertain stance on post-war US internationalism. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expended considerable political resources visiting Trump and seeking affirmation that the United States’ commitment to East Asia remains stable and reliable.

Japan has positioned itself to reduce uncertainty in its strategic environment. But it has also moved to shift its external security strategy from simple balancing to a complex form of hedging.

The approach involves decoupling security and economic affairs as well as postponing tough economic negotiations. The successful outcome of the February 2017 Japan–US summit, at least in the eyes of Japanese policymakers, included deepening US commitment to the security of Japan — including on the issue of the East China Sea — as well as the launch of a new economic dialogue system between US Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso.

Crucial steps going forward were also announced in the joint statement from the meeting. That statement confirmed that the Senkaku islands are covered by Article V of the US–Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, the first time a US president has pledged this commitment in writing. The Japanese government is trying to shape Trump’s Asia policy through personal friendship between the two countries’ leaders, as evidenced in the frequent telephone conversations, including two taking place before and after the US–China summit meeting in Florida. While Tokyo is deeply worried about Trump’s ignorance of the international security order and international affairs, it has given priority to having the best channel of communication to Trump in Asia and the Pacific and avoiding being the first target of Trump pressuring tactics.

Japan’s foreign policy is characterised, however, by a delicate balance between alliance management and neighbourhood diplomacy. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for example, dealt a severe blow to Japan’s strategic paradigm. Japan’s primary conception of TPP, as a key check against China’s economic and political influence, has been left in tatters. Escalation of unpredictability and uncertainty in relations with Washington leaves Japan with little choice but to review its tenuous relationship with China.

While the Japan–China relationship was knocked off course after two Senkaku incidents in 2010 and 2012, some cordiality has returned to it this year. There was a warming in deputy ministerial talks in April, of a kind not recently seen in high-level bilateral meetings. Since 2017 is the 45th anniversary year of Japan–China normalisation and 2018 will be the 40th anniversary of the Japan–China Treaty of Peace and Friendship, officials in both governments are making efforts to push the bilateral agenda.

In the last week of April, a visit by Toshihiro Nikai, Secretary General of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, was suddenly scheduled during the Belt and Road Forum. Takaya Imai, the Prime Minister’s Secretary for Political Affairs and his closest aide, accompanied Nikai. Nikai delivered his speech at a plenary meeting and also met Xi, with Abe’s personal letter, to emphasise the importance of Japan–China relations. Both before and after this trip, Nikai publicly suggested that Japan would consider participation in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). In a TV interview in May just after China’s Belt and Road Forum, Abe himself mentioned the possibility of participating in AIIB.

Another high level meeting was held on 29 May between Shotaro Yachi, Japan’s Secretary General of National Security Secretariat, and Yang Jiechi, China’s State Councilor. They confirmed intentions to hold a summit meeting. Then, on 5 June, Prime Minister Abe publicly voiced his intention to cooperate with the Belt and Road Initiative.

It is too early to judge whether these moves suggest a shift towards Beijing stemming from its worries about Trump diplomacy. They are still embryonic. Japan’s aims are likely directed at relieving short-term security and political troubles with China and seeking Beijing’s cooperation on North Korean issues. Japan still rejects any idea of a long-term China-led regional order.

Japan’s has not yet undertaken any wholesale review of its established foreign policy strategy. But it is surely re-evaluating its strategy because of anxiety about the signs of America’s dwindling commitment to the established order. If Japan’s fears of US retreat come to pass, there will be more room to manoeuvre in efforts at warmer diplomacy towards China.

Ryo Sahashi is an Associate Professor of International Politics, Kanagawa University and a Research Fellow at the Japan Center for International Exchange. This article is an abbreviated and updated version of a public talk delivered at Stanford University on 23 May 2017.

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