Shinzo Abe is about to enjoy a period of domestic political stability. And he’s going to need it to deal with all the foreign policy headaches the Trump administration is causing, Stephen Nagy writes.

Two decades of economic stagnation and revolving political leadership in Japan has given way to the longest period of political stability since World War Two.

Following the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election on 20 September 2018, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will have consolidated his position domestically as the uncontested political leader of Japan’s ruling party allowing him to stay in power until 2021.

The political stability that will come with his re-election as LDP president will be needed to deal with the numerous areas of instability in the international system today.

First and foremost is the Japan-US alliance, which is being tested by the mercurial leadership in the Trump White House. The US is pressuring Japan for a free, fair and reciprocal bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) in order to reduce the bilateral trade deficit.

This explains part of Tokyo’s concern with Washington, but even before this, Japan has been worried by many of the Trump administration’s unilateral decisions in the region, such as halting joint South Korea-US military training on the peninsula and accepting the summit with Kim Jung-un in June.

In themselves, these decisions would not be so hard to understand if they were based on a discernible long-term strategy that was communicated to allies and partners alike. The problem is there has been no such strategy.

For example, pushing a bilateral FTA with Tokyo to decrease the bilateral deficit between the two countries is neither necessary nor practical. The deficit can be reduced by Tokyo through the purchase of arms, energy, and some agricultural products which Tokyo has already put on the table, rather than an automobile-for-beef exchange that would not decrease the deficit.

Moreover, in the wake of the US-China trade war, we have seen Washington simultaneously pick trade fights with Japan, Canada, and the European Union. Any coherent strategy to execute a successful trade war with China would more practically be prosecuted by working with allies who share similar concerns about China’s trade practices and the long-term intentions of President Xi Jinping.

As highlighted by Minister Akira Amari at his Brooking’s Institute talk in May, the inconvenient truth for the Trump administration is that staying in the Trans-Pacific Partnership or a modified version of it would have contributed to achieving many of America’s current demands on China.

For Japan (and China), the take-home message is the White House’s trade tactics are not based on economics but potentially transformative geopolitics that may have implications for Japan-US relations.

Here is the conundrum for Abe.

The White House’s behaviour is destabilising many of the post-World War Two institutions, norms and practices that formed the foundation for the Japan-US alliance. At the same time, new 21st century institutions such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership are being eschewed for incoherent, short-term political tactics that do not contribute to achieving clear objectives.

For Abe, being openly critical of the lack of consultation may intensify the current instability and make it more difficult for Japan to manage security issues in the region.

The Abe administration’s responses to date has been to refrain from public criticism of the Trump administration, seek clarification on US intentions through consultation, and clarify Japan’s positions and its support for the alliance. This will continue at the leadership level. At the same time, the Japanese government will spare no effort to assess if off-the-cuff comments or tweets have any teeth at the institutional level.

Japan needs to work in concert with the US to deal with a nuclear North Korea, as it is in the front lines of Pyongyang’s short and mid-range conventional and non-conventional missile systems.

Furthermore, the trajectory of North Korea’s development impacts Japan’s security as well. If Pyongyang strengthens relations with China and South Korea through proposed inter-Korean infrastructure, this would be bad news for Japan. The three countries might form an anti-Japanese trifecta, connected through Korean and Belt and Road infrastructure and energised by Russian energy exports. This would leave Japan isolated in the region and subject to the political whims of a Beijing-led grouping.

Without a stable US-Japan alliance buoyed by strong trade relations, Tokyo will be unable to ensure that the evolution of the Korean Peninsula is acceptable to Japan’s long-term interests. This would revive the old fears of the Korean Peninsula being “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.”

The same can be said for the necessity of cooperation in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Indian Ocean. While Japan may today be able to stave off potential incidents related to the Senkaku Islands today, the expansion of China’s naval and merchant fleets will overwhelm Japan’s capacity to push back against lawfare tactics in the future.

The expansion of Japan’s strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific are important initiatives to send the message to Beijing that Tokyo will work with partners to maintain its national interests. Lobbying extra-regional powers like Britain and France to conduct joint naval exercises as well as Canada and Australia to send naval vessels to the region further strengthens Tokyo’s efforts to enforce international law, and rule-based behaviour by all stakeholders in the region.

Notwithstanding the contributions of the extra-regional powers, it’s the US that has the capacity, experience and security footprint in the region to make a real difference.

Without a robust Japan-US alliance, the new Indo-Pacific concept, the Quad, and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy will have little teeth.

Here again, Abe will have to find ways in his newly strengthened position to inculcate stability and predictability into the Japan-US alliance and his relationship with Trump. He can do this by enhancing cooperation and empowering current members of the Quad but also actively seeking out new partners that can bring their comparative advantages to these nascent institutions.

Clarity concerning US foreign policy towards Japan and the Indo-Pacific is emerging. The ‘America First’ president seems to prioritise economic re-calibration over long-standing comprehensive relations as embodied in the US-Japan Alliance.

Nevertheless, Abe should seek to strengthen the alliance by finding meaningful ways to bolster Japan’s contributions – such as through more joint training and Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea. These decrease the US burden and thus are effective ways to placate an US administration that is tethered to a focus on reciprocal relationships in the realm of economics.

Tokyo can and should further its position through a non-confrontational approach with the Trump presidency by finding other ways to mitigate economic disparities, such as purchasing more arms, energy and agricultural products.

Japan’s geographic position, economic weight and close institutional relations with the US at many different levels make Tokyo an indispensable partner. Abe needs to highlight the positive role Japan can play in dealing with the region’s most pressing issues – from North Korea’s nuclear program to an emerging Chinese superpower.

(This article was first published in Asia and Pacific Society’s Policy Forum on the 20th of September, 2018 and is reposted with the expressed permission of Dr. Stephen R. Nagy.)

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