Sheila Smith on U.S.-Japan Relations

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzō Abe of Japan share a laugh with members of the U.S. delegation, as they meet for their bilateral meeting, Friday, May 26, 2017, at the Hotel Villa Diodoro in Taormina, Italy.

Sheila A. Smith, an expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy, is senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). She is the author of Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China (Columbia University Press, 2015) and Japan's New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance (Council on Foreign Relations, June 2014). Her current research focuses on how geostrategic change in Asia is shaping Japan's strategic choices. In the fall of 2014, Smith began a project on Northeast Asian Nationalisms and Alliance Management.

Smith is a regular contributor to the CFR blog Asia Unbound, and frequent contributor to major media outlets in the United States and Asia. She joined CFR from the East-West Center in 2007, where she directed a multinational research team in a cross-national study of the domestic politics of the U.S. military presence in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. She was a visiting scholar at Keio University in 2007-08, where she researched Japan’s foreign policy towards China, supported by the Abe Fellowship. Smith has been a visiting researcher at two leading Japanese foreign and security policy think tanks, the Japan Institute of International Affairs and the Research Institute for Peace and Security, and at the University of Tokyo and the University of the Ryukyus.

Smith is vice chair of the U.S. advisors to the U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Exchange (CULCON), a bi-national advisory panel of government officials and private sector members. She also serves on the advisory committee for the U.S.-Japan Network for the Future program of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation. She teaches as an adjunct professor at the Asian Studies Department of Georgetown University and serves on the board of its Journal of Asian Affairs. She earned her MA and PhD degrees from the department of political science at Columbia University.

Unlike many other presidents and prime ministers around the world, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has surprised many by cultivating a strong, positive relationship with U.S. President Trump. What has enabled the warm relationship between Abe and Trump?

Prime Minister Abe took a bit of a political risk right after the election and reached out to the president-elect and stopped by in New York to say “hello” to him. That was possible because Abe himself thought that was a good idea, and the Japanese ambassador as well as the team here in Washington created some contacts that were very useful to the relationship-building. So it was definitely partly luck and partly political intuition on the part of Abe. But the reality was that Donald Trump hadn’t had much experience with diplomacy. What happened was that that initial overture by Abe really translated into a relationship in which Abe had taken a friendly adviser role. The U.S.-Japan relationship has always been strong, also in large part due to North Korea. When Prime Minister Abe was visiting the United States, and Trump and Abe were in fact playing golf and Kim Jong Un shot off a couple missiles towards Japan, that had actually provided the opportunity for Abe and Trump to reassure the Japanese and to reassert the U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan. So there are two pieces that are sort of serendipitous to this: one is a little bit of political instinct and one is North Korea and the timing of North Korea’s provocations, which gave Abe and Trump a boost in terms of establishing their relationship and opening a stronger partnership or alliance.

What role has the North Korean crisis played in strengthening this relationship?

North Korea is a long-standing security challenge to the United States, South Korea, and obviously to Japan. Kim Jong Un has developed a capacity to deliver nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction. He has missiles that can reach Japan. But he’s improved his capacity, so now Japan falls under the immediate threat of North Korea. But in the last year-and-a-half missile tests, some, though not all of them, have been aimed towards Japan. –– they’ve fallen right outside Japan’s territory or around it, either in an Exclusive Economic Zone or more recently near Hokkaido, closer to Japanese territorial waters. The larger or perhaps more existential threat is that the North Koreans are hoping to develop an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and this will be the first time for the Asian allies of the United States to really confront this question of deterrence and extended deterrence directly. The Europeans have long talked about the question of “Would the United States sacrifice New York for London or New York for France?” The European answer to that was largely to develop independent nuclear capabilities. The French and the British have small nuclear forces; South Korea and Japan have not gone down the nuclear path, though South Korea considered it in the 1970’s, but then abandoned that idea. Both of our allies in Asia have relied on our extended deterrence. And they have never quite confronted this question with the exception of China’s nuclear weapons , but they’ve never confronted it as they do with North Korea. This is a hostile regime that might want to “decouple” United States from its allies. Then what do you do? That’s where we are right now, but Kim Jong Un wants to try to perfect the technology to allow him to have a workable ICBM in the rhetorical escalation with President Trump. Our Asian allies, and Japan particularly, are now having to confront the question of reliability of the U.S. and the extent of deterrent in ways that they haven’t really had to in the past.

Due to Japan’s reliance on the U.S. military umbrella for its nation’s defense, the growing reach of North Korean ICBMs have provoked concern about the “decoupling” of the U.S. and Japan –– the fear that the U.S. will be unable or unwilling to defend Tokyo if it is attacked by Pyongyang. Given President Trump’s isolationist rhetoric, does Japan fear that the U.S. is unlikely to honor its security commitments?

The U.S. and Japan began with the extended deterrent dialogue around 2008-09. The question of reliability of extended deterrent has always been there among the security specialists. So, it’s not a new topic or conversation for the U.S.-Japan alliance, but the immediacy in the North Korean missile threat has elevated that just a little bit. While the Japanese security commitment has been effective in terms of extended deterrent, some people like to focus on the numbers and those are the people who have been very worried about America’s modernization of its nuclear arsenal. Those worries began in the 1990s’ when China began to modernize and basically upgrade their own ICBMs. There was some back-and-forth between Japanese and American officials on what was an effective number –– what kind of arsenal would be necessary for the United States to be an effective reliable deterrent. So that conversation has been ongoing over a decade now. The Trump factor is whether or not Japanese policy makers believe that the Trump administration is likely to use force, in other words, to instigate a war with Korea, or whether it is more likely to step back from the offer of extended deterrent, which is part of the rhetoric of his campaign. I think the latter has largely been satisfied in being discussed between Abe and Trump and the two governments. You can see in the joint statements when Prime Minister Abe visited in February as well as the 2+2 statement that was issued after the 2+2 meeting on Aug. 17 this year. You can see in those statements and in subsequent statements by Secretary Mattis and by Secretary Tillerson, where they pledged the absolute commitment of the United States to the defense of its allies: South Korea and Japan.

The more interesting question perhaps is whether or not Japanese believe that the Trump administration is likely to either escalate tensions to sufficiently provoke a use of force by Pyongyang instigate a use of force by the United States. Seasoned policy makers who have had a lot of interaction with Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson and the U.S. military understand that the United States does not think that the problem of North Korean nuclear proliferation will be solved by a preemptive strike. Expert policy makers inside the government understand that the U.S. governmental policy has not fundamentally changed regardless of presidential tweets or the rhetoric.. While there is a lot of concern regarding the escalatory rhetoric, especially in the last several weeks, I don’t believe that anyone making decisions in Japan thinks that the United States should and could solve the problem by a preemptive strike. The public on the other hand is alarmed. You can see it in Japanese newspapers and South Korea’s as well. You can see it in Japanese newspapers and opinion polling, they are very uncertain about what President Trump thinks and what a Trump administration is likely to do.

Although President Trump has reaffirmed America’s treaty commitment to defend against an armed attack on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and has promised its host nation support, does the U.S. President have much credibility in Japan at this time?

Credibility is a funny thing. It’s like beauty –– it’s all in the eye of the beholder. What reassures the Japanese is really something only the Japanese can answer. But the Japanese government answered very strongly -- in that in the transition, between Obama and Trump, what they needed is to have the U.S. president restate that assurance, and that the United States would afford the Article V protections to the Senkaku Islands. That was what was in the joint communique, in the very first meeting, and that was what the Trump administration had chosen to do. I suspect though, that the Senkaku Islands still remains as a very sensitive topic for the Japanese; the Chinese continue to operate in and around those waters. They’ve had kind of a creeping intrusion into those waters first by coast guards and now occasionally PLAN and Russian navy ships and there’s a lot of things that the Japanese government could easily do to put them back on their heels. It would be very hard to defend any government if the Chinese government took assertive actions. But it’s very difficult to keep anyone from taking those islands away. They’re very remote. They’re not a very good place to land. There’s nobody on this island, the Japanese continue to be restrained, and they do not place government officials on these islands even though they are worried about what the Chinese might do. It’s a very sensitive topic Despite his reputation for being a hawk and everything else, Prime Minister Abe has not actually put anyone on the island. He has not stationed anyone on the island or done anything to give better access to the coast guards. He has tried to avoid escalation in tension with the Chinese, but on the other hand, the two governments had agreed to reduce military tensions from the East China Sea. Of course, we still have a difficult situation that could easily blow up if you had an incident or an inadvertent incident or miscalculation which we can find ourselves easily back in the middle of a heated situation. I’m not sure right now how Trump seems to be very committed to his relationship with Mr. Abe as North Korea has brought the alliance closer together than ever before in terms of military coordination. We’re now conducting military planning in ways we’ve never done before. I don’t know if President Trump will think twice before threatening China instead of North Korea. It’s one thing to threaten a small country and a young leader by brandishing nuclear weapons and missiles, but it’s a whole other cup of tea to use the same language and threaten the same response to China. Again, the pattern that we’ve seen between the U.S. and Japan on the North Korean issue may not be the pattern that we would see for example, should there be some kind of military escalation in the East China Sea.

Is there any evidence that Japan is trying to improve its relationship with China as a hedge against Trump’s unpredictability?

I don’t know. I think it’s a little early to look at something like this. I haven’t seen visible efforts towards this “hedge”.. Abe has gone all-in and he’s basically taken the “hug Mr. Trump close” strategy. So instead of stepping back from the United States and hedging, he’s scooted right on in to secure Mr. Trump’s attention to the alliance. That being said, the China-Japan relationship has improved since the two leaders met in November 2014, though it looked like Xi Jinping just wanted to hold his nose. But Abe and Xi have now met around nine times since then, and they’ve been together for many multilateral meetings. There has been some talk that Xi may be invited for a state visit to Japan. The trilateral China, Japan, South Korea dialogue is to be hosted by Japan this year, but they’re waiting for China to set the date. It might be the Chinese Premier attending, but he would still be the highest-level Chinese official to visit Japan since Abe returned to power five years ago.

The economic relationship has largely been restored to the pre-2011 levels. Foreign direct investments are high. There’s a lot of Japanese capital that flows to China. Japanese industries are also diversifying as much to do with cost of labor in China as it does with the political situation. New investments are not growing as fast as the Chinese would like. Many Japanese companies have been invested into China for a long time and continue to maintain their investment at a stable level. The Japanese-Chinese trade is somewhere in the vicinity of $275 billion, not as big as U.S.-China, but certainly not a number to sneeze at. And again, both countries depend on that trade for their economic growth. Chinese now depend on Japan less than they used to relative to other countries. Relatively speaking, the economic leverage of the Japanese is still significant but it is not decisive. On the other hand, Japan relied heavily on China and their economic growth, as their growth has gone more anemic. It’s been sustained now for two years, about one percent, unlike Chinese growth which is more around six percent. That balance of leverage based on economics has shifted now.

Does President Trump pose a significant threat to any of Premier Abe’s initiatives or goals, like the success of a Japanese-led TPP?

I don’t think so. I’m not sure if “Japanese-led” is the right way to think about TPP-11 if that’s what you’re referring to. TPP-11 is going to have to be Australia and Japan and others. I don’t know if a Japanese-led TPP is the right way to frame it because Japan can’t lead it alone. So Canberra and Tokyo have teamed up a bit, but I don’t think the Trump administration can get in the way. We withdrew. We are not in the conversation. Watch the upcoming APEC meeting, TPP-11 will take place there and Trump will not be invited. They’ve had several meetings, and we’re not invited. The other thing I can see with Japan is that Japan has struck out in another way with the EU-Japan trade. The European Union and Japan cover about 39 percent of the export trade.. It’s not as big as TPP could have been, but for Japan it’s very important to have Europe as a potential partner. Japan and Europe are both deciding that if the United States is not going to lead on trade liberalization, they will. And I’m glad for that frankly. So you’ve got two initiatives: TPP-11 and the EU-Japan trade initiative that suggests that the Japanese are not going to sit tight and wait on the Trump administration to decide what it wants to do in trade. They’re going to pursue their own interests. The danger zone for the U.S. relationship is how this trading relationship between the United States and Japan will work its way out. It’s hard to know because it is a little bit unclear what the new Trump administration might want to negotiate with Japan. The Japanese press has been saying they will not re-open market access talks. They’ve already done that in TPP and they’re not going to do that again. I suspect the Trump administration may take us back to squabbling over trade, but the Japanese would avoid that at all costs.

How is Donald Trump received in Japan? Does the Japanese media portray him in a sympathetic or critical light?

It depends on the media. Japan has a healthy media culture. You’ve got more establishment-oriented conservative newspapers, and you’ve got the array of newspapers like the United States; some liberal left might be more critical whereas others are more conservative and sympathetic. On economic issues, they tend to be largely critical on the Trump administration’s approach to trade There isn’t one Japanese point-of-view. Generally, because there is a very strong interest in a close partnership to the United States, they want the relationship to go well. On the other hand, there is a little nervousness on just how bad the security environment around Japan is degrading. The alliance is fine. There is a certain way in which the Japanese look at this partnership, and it tends to be whether two leaders get along or not in a personal way. I meet lots of Japanese who are otherwise basically rational people who tell me: “Oh it’s okay because Abe and Trump are good friends!” and I look at them and go “Okay! Okay then…” I’m not sure I believe that but for many in Japan they feel that their Prime Minister has handled this partnership well because this alliance is on strong personal footing.

In terms of domestic politics, how does Premier Abe benefit from continuing to court the U.S. President?

I call him Trump’s Asia-adviser. There is a lot for Japan to lose if its ties with the U.S. are not good. This goes back to geopolitics of Asia. Japan is not in a great position to be isolated from the United States. Whether it’s Abe or any other Japanese leader, they feel that their security is more enhanced with an alliance with us than any kind of independent measure like building nuclear weapons. Japan has no other alliance possibility –– clearly not with South Korea given the continued animosity over the legacy of the past, nor with China, which would rather see Japan in a reduced position in reference to the hierarchy of Asia. China is aspiring to be the leader of Asia and there is no doubt about that. I don’t know that China also sees security in terms of alliance with other countries. It doesn’t have alliances with the obvious exception of the DPRK. But I don’t know that Japan would feel more safe or secure not being close allies with the United States. So that strategic dependence on the U.S. continues to be the core driver in Japan’s efforts to maintain a friendly relation with Trump.

Jenifer Hanki CMC '20Student Journalist

Featured Image by Shealah Craighead [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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