By Phil McLaughlin, Contributing Writer
In December of 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an immensely symbolic visit to the United States, visiting Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was bitterly poignant as he came as a friend, one of America’s chief allies. This in stark contrast to the Japanese attack that came there in 1941. The world now is very different from the era that ended with World War II, and Japan has quickly become one of the most important allies for the United States in the crucial Asia-Pacific region.
The Asia-Pacific region has become one of the most important global areas in the 21st century, and as America has tried to demonstrate its own Pacific power, it has grown increasingly closer to Japan. Prime Minister Abe and President Obama had a good relationship, and ties under their administrations have deepened but with the election of Donald Trump, the world order stands at an uncertain precipice.
Increasingly in East Asia, security challenges from North Korea, China, and Russia have brought the United States and Japan closer together. There are about 50,000 US troops stationed in Japan, a presence that evolved out of the occupation force that was there at the end of the Second World War into a forward deployed force ready at a moment's notice to defend Japan or respond to a threat in Asia. President Trump has made military power a centerpiece of his campaign, and much has been made over his commitment to US allies. Commentators have wondered what his plans are for existing international security structures like NATO or the UN, but not much fuss has been made about his plans for Japan.
It is well known that President Trump has serious qualms about the current balance of the US-China relationship. Spectators worry about his seriousness in labelling China a ‘currency manipulator’ or imposing high tariffs on their products. They are concerned that this could lead to a trade war and a loss of Chinese investment into the US economy. By the same token, some are emboldened by his hawkish stance vis-a-vis the Chinese, loving his unpredictability in foreign policy, which does nothing to assuage Chinese concerns. As tensions between our nations slowly simmer and disputes between US allies like the Philippines or Japan continue with China, Trump is sure to hold to his guns in backing key US allies in the region, especially as they contain or undermine a resurgent China.
During the campaign, Trump advocated for a US defense policy that was robust and able to face down any threat from a peer or near-peer competitor (read: China). A key part of this policy will have to rely on allies in East Asia that can provide the basing and infrastructure for large volumes of US troops and naval vessels, including the specialized accommodations for our fleet of supercarriers. Japan is one of the few Asian nations that can support this, and as a treaty-bound US ally, it may be prudent to deepen our relationship with them to counter threats in Northeast Asia.
Trump has made many calls for European allies to carry their own weight, claiming that they get the better end of the deal while the US pays for their security. He would be pleased to know that Japan has just increased its defense budget for the fifth year in a row, to an all time record high. As Japanese and Chinese ships circle each other around the Senkaku Islands, Russian planes encounter their Japanese counterparts over the Kuril Islands, and North Korea keeps launching missiles, there is no shortage of opportunities for the US and Japan to deepen their relationship. Under Obama, Japan and the United States have committed to holding military and disaster exercises together. Japan even went so far as to change its Constitution in order to make it possible to defend the United States just as the United States would defend Japan. Trump, who wants to see strong US allies taking command of their own security, needs look no further than Japan.
There are no shortage of areas where Japan and the United States could look to increase collaboration. As Japan returns to the world stage as a military power, albeit one limited to defense, it can continue its trend of holding exercises with the United States. Of course, as the US bases so many troops and even the US 7th Fleet in Japan, military to military contacts are a paramount feature of the relationship. The Malabar Exercises between the US, Japan, and India, are a good example of where the US could deepen contacts. Bringing in other Asian maritime powers such as the Philippines or Australia, both of which are also Japanese allies, the US could look to embolden the existing security framework of East Asia. The US Army even has an Australian as its Deputy Commander for Operations in the Pacific, something they could look to do with Japanese counterparts by integrating them deeper into the organizational framework of the US military.
Japan is also a major economic partner of the United States, with trade between the two countries valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars. They are the largest holder of US sovereign debt, showing just how deep the economic ties between the countries truly are. Trump, though he has professed to be averse to bad trade deals, could look to negotiate a free-trade agreement or resurrect the Structural Impediments Initiative to analyze areas where Japan and the US can work together to address foundational issues in economic relations. Skilled in the art of the deal, this might be an area of importance for Trump as he could look to counter economic uncertainties in the Chinese relationship with a Japanese one.
We have come a long way in 75 years, years marked by the most vicious war the world has known but that beget one of the deepest international friendships. Looking to the future, the relationship with Japan will become increasingly important as we look to contain or counter a rising China, undermine a North Korea hellbent on achieving nuclear status, and maintain our dominance in the Asia-Pacific for years to come. Under President Trump, this relationship has the opportunity to deepen and develop in order to fulfill that goal, but it requires that we turn out to the world rather than inward unto ourselves.