How Trump Can Strengthen the U.S.-Japan Alliance

How Trump Can Strengthen the U.S.-Japan Alliance

by Rizwan Ladha

Last week’s meeting between President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went surprisingly well, but if this summit is the baseline test of Mr. Trump’s capacity to handle foreign policy and national security challenges, then the bar may be set too low, because rising tensions in East Asia will almost surely test the administration in the future.

Over the course of a three-day summit between the leaders of Japan and the U.S. from Feb. 10 to 12, Mr. Trump took multiple opportunities to reaffirm that the U.S.-Japan alliance is strong, saying the alliance remains “the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Pacific region” and making clear that “the United States of America is behind Japan … 100 percent.” While Mr. Trump’s comments on the campaign trail last year had caused great consternation in Japan and South Korea, his latest public rhetoric, which hews closely to comments Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis recently made while in Japan, is reassuring in that it brings this White House in line with the past seven decades of American leadership in strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Still, the North Korean missile test over the weekend is a stark reminder that attitudes and platitudes alone will not be enough for this new administration to succeed, especially as China also becomes increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea. If North Korea or China actually presented Japan with the threat or use of force, how would Mr. Trump handle that moment of real crisis?

First and most importantly, Mr. Trump has demonstrated that he does not fully appreciate the mutually beneficial arrangements between the United States and its East Asian allies. He has complained specifically about U.S. alliance structures vis-à-vis Japan and South Korea, claiming they are bad deals because the United States foots the bill for those alliances and our allies get a free ride. (In fact, Japan and South Korea pay the bulk of the cost for hosting U.S. troops, and the United States also benefits immensely from those alliances through trade — Japan and South Korea have contributed nearly half a trillion dollars to the U.S. economy.) Thus, in his “America First” philosophy, it is unclear whether Mr. Trump believes he would be obligated to follow through on America’s treaty commitment to defend Japan.

Second, Mr. Trump’s comments on nuclear proliferation show he does not understand that proliferation is bad for America and the world. In multiple instances, he has made flippant, cavalier, and ignorant remarks suggesting Japan and South Korea should have their own nuclear weapons. Thus, if North Korea or China were to escalate tensions in East Asia to the point of threatening Japan, Mr. Trump’s preferred response might be to stay on the sidelines militarily, while encouraging Japan to acquire its own nuclear arsenal in order to defend itself.

Taken together, these attitudes do not inspire confidence in the commander-in-chief.

Should an actual crisis emerge for Japan, there are three possible ways in which the Trump White House could respond.

In the first scenario, Mr. Trump may decide that it would be unwise to keep America’s treaty commitments, and so he would choose to do nothing. In addition to being illegal (because the U.S. is treaty-bound to defend Japan), this move would be disastrous, because it would strengthen calls in Tokyo for Japan to have its own nuclear weapons, which would be very dangerous. Ultimately, doing nothing would fracture the U.S.-Japan relationship and likely end up severing U.S.-Japan trade ties, which was one of Mr. Trump’s arguments for withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and pursuing a bilateral free trade agreement with Japan. The likelihood of this scenario appears to be high because, if it happens, it would be in line with what seem to be Trump’s longstanding personal beliefs.

In the second scenario, Mr. Trump may decide to respond militarily, but he seems to lack a detailed enough understanding of U.S. military might to make a precise and informed decision. Thus there is a high chance he will overreact and bungle our military response. In this case, he risks alienating allies, empowering China and North Korea, and setting the United States back decades in its Pacific power primacy. This scenario, fortunately, is not as likely because Mr. Trump appears to believe only in threatening the use of force, not actually using it.

In the third scenario, if Mr. Trump does choose to respond militarily, he may err on the side of caution, due to the same lack of understanding of U.S. military might, and instead under react. This response would almost certainly guarantee a “too little too late” outcome, whereby neither America’s nor Japan’s objectives would be met. More importantly, it would leave Japan more uncertain than at any other point in the past 70 years about the strength of the U.S. commitment to Japan’s security.

Going forward, there are a few key steps the White House can take to firm up its policy priorities and reassure nervous allies. First, Mr. Trump can scale back his combative and hostile rhetoric and give his cabinet secretaries and staff the requisite time and space to develop well thought out strategies and policies. In the meantime, Mr. Trump, through his National Security Council, can commission a series of interagency scenario planning studies to create contingencies in the event of a future East Asia crisis, which would likely escalate quickly. Third, the United States can undertake joint military and policy coordination exercises with the Japanese Self Defense Forces and the Japanese Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense, which would send both positive reassurance signals to Japan (and South Korea), as well as deterrence signals to China and North Korea.

While a couple of sensible press conferences are good, Mr. Trump must be prepared to follow through. Since Truman, every U.S. president has hewed to the letter and spirit of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty because it has been in America’s best interests to do so, and now Mr. Trump has an opportunity to continue that tradition. If he really wants to keep “America First,” he and his policy staff would be wise to think carefully about how to respond when an East Asian crisis almost inevitably occurs. 

Image "141112-N-IC565-150" courtesy U.S. Pacific Fleet, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

About the Author

Rizwan Ladha is a Ph.D. candidate in international relations at The Fletcher School and a pre-doctoral research fellow in the Project on Managing the Atom and International Security Program at the Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School. His dissertation examines U.S. alliance dynamics and nuclear proliferation in East Asia.

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