The arrival of a new U.S. Secretary of State in Japan is usually a matter of much pomp and little substance. Events framing the visit on March 15-16 of Secretary Rex Tillerson made the usual theatrical tableaux of steadfastness and common purpose both less believable and more necessary.
Despite its seemingly lead position in relations with the Trump Administration, the Abe Administration has been playing catch up.
For Tokyo observers, the circus-like atmosphere in and around the Trump White House has been a reminder of just how dependent Japan is upon the United States. The U.S. is not just a main trading market and Japan’s only actual military ally, it has also been as an ultimately reliable friend, one whose looming presence has allowed Japan’s governing and managing classes to be parochial and self-absorbed.
Now that it is the turn for the United States to be parochial and self-absorbed, Japan’s elites are realizing they have never imagined what their world would be like without the U.S. around as an older, wiser sibling.
The first shock is that rather than Japan needing the Trump Administration, it looks like the Trump Administration needs Japan. Abe was the first world leader to meet with Donald Trump after his electoral victory and the first world leader to have a summit with the new president. Japan was second destination of the initial foreign journey of the new U.S. Secretary of Defense and is the first stop on the inaugural trip of Secretary Tillerson. In the Trump-Abe summit on February 10-11, the two leaders furthermore agreed on an exclusive Japan-U.S. dialogue on economic and currency matters.
The image of a possible special relationship developing flatters Japanese elites and their senses of competence and control. However, they are keenly aware of three truths. One is that the developing special relationship is not with the United States but the Trump Administration and its luridly impulsive leader.
Second is that Japan had to sell everything just to establish this relationship. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo himself had to fly out to meet with President Trump, dropping in at both of his private homes. Arrangements for both meetings were furthermore worked out by Trump family members and the prime minister’s close aides, rather than staff-to-staff. The U.S. side provided little more than scenery and insincere promises from the president, poor deliverables for the prime minister of a fellow democracy to carry home with him on the plane.
Abe’s pains have not gone unrewarded. He did receive a bump upward of 2 to 4 percentage points to his already impressive and historically high Cabinet support ratings. Seven out of ten of Japanese approved of his decision to have an early summit with the new U.S. president. They also valued the summit’s reiteration of security guarantees, including an extension of the verbal promise of U.S. protection over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, -- an economically and strategically worthless archipelago of great symbolic importance to the Japanese government and citizenry.
The third truth confronting the Abe Administration is that Japan’s special relationship will only extend to security affairs. The U.S. turn to realism and self-help affects not only security but politics and economics too. Japanese elites, particularly conservative elites, are happy in the first instance, disappointed in the second and infuriated in the third.
The Trump Administration ethos of having U.S. allies do more and pay more aligns perfectly with what conservatives like Prime Minister Abe have been advocating for Japan in the 21st century. Japan’s conservatives have always argued that Japan must do more to defend itself. They strenuously argue Japan must alter its legal structure, budget, manpower, platforms, stance and training to reflect a greater self-reliance in providing for Japan’s security.
When it comes to politics, however, many Japanese, including many conservatives, needs the U.S. to remain a liberal beacon. Japan has a special position as an entity at once politically isolated from the rest of East Asia and deeply enmeshed in the world’s trading and manufacturing webs. This position is sustainable in part because it is the ally of the United States, the most attractive of the world’s superpowers.
Trump Administration acts, however, have scraped some of the shine off the reputation of the United States. Initiatives like the Muslim travel ban and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act have seemed vindictive and petty cruelties. They have also called into question whether or not the Japan-U.S. bilateral relationship is based upon shared values. The Nikkei, Japan’s voice of the reasoned center and corporate management – usually reluctant to criticize the United States -- pointedly editorialized that the first Trump travel ban violated all that makes America great.
It is in economics, however, that the Trump Administration’s turn to realism places the U.S. at odds with the Abe Administration and Japan. In trade, the abandonment of the Trans Pacific Partnership -- and by extension the concepts of regionalism and unity against Chinese domination of East Asia -- has left Japanese policy makers livid. The TPP contains all the elements of tariff reductions, harmonization of labor rules and market access about which Trump and his trade advisors purportedly care, together with intellectual property and investment guarantees.
Japan was furthermore a late and reluctant convert to the project, accepting its provocative deviation from multilateral norms precisely because of the access provided to the U.S. market. With the U.S. out of TPP and a depleted Office of the Trade Representative (USTR) releasing bullet points indicating Washington will not even accept WTO rulings, Japan’s business and political circles are pressing on the Abe Administration to be as stubborn and prickly as possible on economic issues.
The Abe Administration has conceded on the Trump demand that there be an economic dialogue between the principals, by-passing and superseding the institution and norm generating interactions between the lower levels at Treasury and USTR on the U.S side and Finance and METI on the Japanese side.
However, a Trump Administration framing of the Dialogue as a venue for bilateral deals is dead on arrival, as far as the Japanese side is concerned. The Yomiuri Shimbun, seen by many as the mouthpiece of the Abe Administration, has telegraphed the Abe government’s intension to hold the line with the Trump Administration in upcoming economic talks, responding to bluster and threats with facts and precedent.
What is remarkable about this call for resistance to U.S. pressure is that the Dialogue concept itself is not unpopular. Two thirds of the voters, according to Kyodo polling, agreed that it might be a good thing for the two countries. While it is true that the poll was conducted in the afterglow of the February summit, most voters are aware that Japan’s security is dependent on keeping the attention of the Trump Administration. They are cognizant that the Dialogue is one means to hanging on to that attention.
A key new element bewildering Japan’s policy makers, however, is the failure of its longtime strategy for America management. The government of Japan has heretofore relied on a coterie of scholars and Japan-friendly former military members to mold the image of Japan in American minds. Called variously the Japan Hands or the Chrysanthemum Club, these largely (but not solely) Republican party stalwarts have insinuated themselves into key corridors of power in Washington and New York. Held in place and nurtured through foundation grants, corporate-supported scholarships, conference organizing, direct donations, and the prospect, at the end of one’s career, of an Order of the Rising Sun medal, America’s surfeit of Japan experts and Japan friends have provided for a reliable back channel to every formal contact.
Catastrophically for Japanese strategy, the Japan Hands of both parties swore allegiance to Hillary Clinton in the general election. On election day Japan had, for the first time ever, only tenuous links to an incoming Administration. One of the most important of those linkages, the relationship with former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, has already been lost thanks to Flynn’s departure.
An absence of Japan Hands making connections and smooth communications would be a problem in the best of times.
It was the Japan Hands who balanced Japan’s position in security, where the country was both a ward of the U.S. and a key element in U.S. global strategy, against Japan and America’s ambivalent political relationship and contentious co-management of regional and global economic issues – and packaged the whole in a manner acceptable to the U.S. Congress and U.S. elites.
Now, the Abe Administration is on its own, trying to balance what are deeply conflicted priorities.