Trump’s Misunderstanding of the U.S.-Japan Alliance
By Pamela Kennedy
Just as U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hats imply a vague policy outcome without any actionable specifics, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Make Alliance Even Greater” hats, presented to Trump during his visit to Japan last week, exemplify an alliance that has worthy goals but hazier details, in particular regarding North Korea.
At the working level, the U.S.-Japan alliance has been moving towards improved interoperability, more strategic coordination, and more active partnership from the Japanese side for years, and there will continue to be room for development. But at summits that signal an overall direction for the alliance, Trump’s statements are characteristic of the most persistent roadblock for progress: a gulf between what Japan can – and should – realistically do in the partnership, and what the U.S. wants.
Reports have emerged that Trump believes Japan, as a nation of “samurai warriors,” should have shot down the two North Korean missiles that flew over Hokkaido this summer. In addition to giving an oddly aggressive and anachronistic description to a state that now prizes pacifism, Trump’s viewpoint shows a lack of understanding of Japan’s security calculus. Given the tension between Japan and North Korea and the real threat that North Korea poses to Japan’s population, attempting to intercept test missiles could worsen regional tension. Whether or not Japan’s missile defense hits its targets, and missing is an uncomfortable possibility, North Korea might interpret the anti-missile missiles as an attack and attempt retaliation. China, too, might use Japan’s missile defense as another example of what Chinese leaders say is evidence of Japan’s return to militarism.
Moreover, the legality of Japan’s use of its missile defense systems for shooting down test missiles is unclear in these circumstances, especially if the missiles do not pose an existential threat to Japan. The constitution of Japan, penned by the American occupying forces, severely restricts the activities of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). For both test missiles, which the SDF determined would land in the Pacific Ocean, the government of Japan decided that using missile defense was not justifiable, necessary, or worth it. Trump appears unaware of these restrictions.
Trump backed away from his opinion in a joint press conference with Abe, but walked right into another critical area where his expectations and Japan’s reality do not meet: he stated that Japan will commence shooting down North Korean test missiles after purchasing “massive amounts of military equipment” from the U.S. Abe clarified that, while Japan will buy more equipment from the U.S. to “enhance” its existing defense capabilities, Japan would only shoot down the missiles “if it is necessary.”
Trump’s emphasis on the equipment sale implied that Japan does not yet possess sufficient missile defense capacity against North Korea, which is not true and contradicts his own earlier opinion. (Whether the systems are capable of successfully intercepting all missiles is another matter.) But he also indicated that there was a major arms transaction in progress due to his visit to Japan, whereas the Self-Defense Forces’ acquisition is driven by the National Defense Program Guidelines in five year increments. The most recent guidelines for 2014-2019 were established in 2013, well before Trump entered office, and include purchases of American systems like Aegis-equipped destroyers and F-35A fighter jets. While some officials in the Ministry of Defense are apparently considering further increasing the amount of foreign military purchases from the U.S. based on Trump’s encouragement, the comments ignore the constraints of Japan’s budget.
In short, Trump’s views of the U.S.-Japan alliance assume that Japan has more flexibility in its defense policy than it actually does, and these restrictions are unlikely to disappear. It is no secret that Abe desires the political equivalent of sea room to maneuver the Self-Defense Forces in Japan’s defense. But while Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito retained their majority in the Lower House of the Diet after the October 22 snap election, and while there is a chance that Abe could convince enough Diet members to support a constitutional revision, there is no indication that a majority of the Japanese public supports changes to the constitution’s Article 9, which renounces maintenance of war potential and belligerency. Moreover, the changes Abe has suggested for Article 9 merely focus on granting the SDF constitutional legality. Without changes permitting broader use of force, offensive as well as defensive, the SDF will continue to face questions about the legality of using its defensive capabilities – including missile defense against test missiles.
As long as efforts to improve the alliance at the working level continue apace, it is tempting to ignore incongruous statements at the leadership level. After all, Trump’s limited understanding of the alliance will not push Japan into reckless actions. But the message at the top matters for maintaining clarity of the alliance’s purposes, the roles of both countries, and the evolution of the partnership to sufficiently meet complex security challenges. A unified face on mutually understood policies is important for trust and strength. Further, disconnect between American and Japanese policies, from responses to North Korean provocations to acquisition practices, can project uncertainty about the alliance’s future and perhaps embolden North Korea to play the U.S. and Japan against each other.
Just as Japan strives to maintain agreement with the U.S. on the proper approach to North Korea, despite Trump’s vacillations between negotiation, sanctions, and military force, the U.S. president must exert himself to fully understand Japan’s defense situation and relevant domestic political situation. If he cannot, then it is critical for Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to promptly correct his misconceptions and assert that the U.S. government, on the whole, recognizes Japan’s defense limitations and is willing to work within them. Only then can the U.S. and Japan show a united effort to strengthen the alliance.
About the Author
Pamela Kennedy is a Research Associate with the East Asia program at Stimson. She holds a M.A. in International Relations and International Economics from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a B.A. summa cum laude in Government and East Asian Studies from the College of William and Mary.