Japan’s Foreign Policy Options in the Trump Era – and Ramifications for NZ?

Professor Toshihiro Nakayama, August 14, 2017.

American president Donald Trump is the “most talked about American ever,” bigger than Elvis, Michael Jackson or even Gen MacArthur, who occupied Japan.

And despite discomfort about him, Japan is still “one of the most pro-American countries in the world,” Prof Nakayama said. “There is the sense that Japan and America are on the same plane … so we have to root for the person who is steering it.”

Japan’s underlying unease about the future of what had, under Obama, been a positive relationship with America is because Japan’s reliance on and power relationship with the US is unsymmetrical. Japan doesn’t have the hard power to shape the international environment, so wants it to be predictable. This predictability relies heavily on US support for international norms, structures and order. The Japan- US alliance was based on shared values, upholding this international order and thus regional stability.

Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP destroyed this narrative. For Japan, and Northeast Asia, TPP was primarily strategic, showing China the direction that the region wanted to go. This would, Prof Nakayama acknowledged, require regime change in China.

US withdrawal from the TPP tilts the axis towards a China-centric future in Asia and Pacific. Japan would prefer the liberal, open, rule-based order that has been the basis of success in Northeast Asia since World War II.

But Japan has no Plan B, he said. None of the other potential options – like building stronger relationships with South Korea, Australia or India, becoming a fully-fledged military power, a full-blown pacifist nation, joining a regional military alliance or working through the UN – was doable.

So while adaptation to Trump and his unpredictability on the international stage is Japan’s current response, Prof Nakayama did not know whether this would still be tenable if Trump won election again in 2020.

Territorial concerns are the main worry of a China-centric world – such as the Spratly Islands and other disputed territories. Japan would have no problem with China if it became an open, democratic country. But perhaps the only way to unite China (and to unify South and North Korea) would be to feed historic anti-Japanese feelings. “You need to be careful what you wish for.”

Prof Nakayama added that Kim Jong Un was “not a maniac”. His primary aim is regime survival “so it is totally rational for him to develop nuclear capacity and have a crazy image. Because it is a closed society, there is not likely to ever be an uprising against him.”