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The US-Japan Alliance under the Trump Administration and Its Future Development Trend By Ling Shengli& Liu Qi


As Japan is an important ally of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region, the adjustment of the US-Japan alliance will influence the implementation of the Asia-Pacific strategy of the U.S., and exert major impacts on regional security and order of the Asia-Pacific as well as the global security landscape. In dealing with this alliance, the Trump administration has followed a policy highlighting “transactionalism”, which has brought about a “Trump shock” to the US allies in the Asia-Pacific region, giving rise to the adjustment of the US-Japan alliance. These new trends deserve our close attention.


I.The Basic Features of Trump’s Foreign Policy


To face the complex internal and external environment, what diplomatic concepts Trump is to take and what foreign policy he is to make during his term of office have attracted much attention. Having analyzed the foreign policy Trump has pursued since coming to power, we have found the following four characteristics.

First, insisting on “America First”, highlighting a strong tendency of isolationism. The internal and external policy orientation of the Trump administration is seen as “domestic matters first”. Like his predecessors, Trump will not give up the global hegemony of the U.S., but unlike his predecessors, he would like to maintain the US global hegemony at a low cost. Relative to the international rules and order, he has laid more emphasis on the strengthening of American real strength, viewing the US power as the core basis for American hegemony.

Second, pursuing a policy of “economy first”, with an emphasis on “minorlateralism”. The chief goal of Trump’s economic policy is to revitalize the American economy, create jobs, and reduce the trade deficit. Excessive meanness of the Trump administration on economic and trade matters has given rise to the adjustment of its economic and trade relations with the allies, likely at the cost of security cooperation within the alliance. Internationally, the Trump administration champions “unilateralism” and “minorlateralism”, withdrawing from several important international agreements and organizations, such as the TPP, the Paris Agreement, and the UNESCO, and preferring bilateral talks to multilateral mechanisms. All of these have manifested the policy tendency of “minorlateralism”.

Third, insisting on “realism” in foreign policy, featuring “opportunism”. Trump’s foreign policy gives priority to practical interests at the expense of ideology, facilitating the political operation of his power by linking various issues in the foreign policy. Trump believes, a cooperation mechanism of “equal rights and responsibilities” should be established between the U.S. and its allies, with its allies sharing the US military expenditure and providing financial support. This political thinking focusing on immediate benefits is characterized by strong opportunism.

Fourth, managing the alliance by applying “transactionalism”, and shifting burdens onto its allies. Since taking office, Trump has remained dependent on the allies in his foreign policy, but he has attached greater importance to American interests, and seen the security protection the U.S. provides its allies as goods with prices. On issues relating either security or trade, the Trump administration has demanded the allies undertake more costs and responsibilities.


II.The US-Japan Alliance under the Trump Administration


Since the beginning of the Trump administration, important members of the US and Japanese governments have kept very close communication by exchanging several visits and calling each other several times. However, the unique style of Trump’s foreign policy has brought about a “Trump shock” to the US-Japanalliance. Although the U.S. and Japan have maintained close political, economic and security cooperation, there are also differences existing between them.

In politics, since Trump taking office, the leaders of the U.S. and Japan have maintained close communication through bilateral and multilateral meetings and calling each other, with the trade and economic issues, the bilateral alliance and the North Korean nuclear issue as the major topics of their communication. The trade and economic issues mainly concern how to reduce Japan’s trade surplus with the U.S., and renegotiation of the bilateral trade agreements; on the alliance, the main issues relate to how to re-distribute the rights and responsibilities within the alliance, and make Japan undertake more responsibilities of the alliance; and on the North Korean nuclear issue, the focus is on how to strengthen the joint response of the alliance to the issue. On the whole, within the US-Japan alliance, the political communication has been much strengthened since Trump coming to power, but differences exist between them under the cover of their intimacy. In economic and security fields, Trump’s “over-expectation” of Japan would be the source of trouble for the US-Japan alliance.

In economy, the importance attached by the Trump administration to economic issues has made the U.S. more concerned with its economic and trade interests with the alliance, as seen: a) As soon as taking office, Trump declared the withdrawal from the TPP, exerting a great impact on the Abenomics as it is built on the TPP. b) The Trump administration has put pressures for several times on Japan on the issue of its trade surplus with the U.S. despite the US-Japan alliance, and raised the tariffs on parts of the steel and aluminum products Japan exports to the United States. As the issue of trade frictions is very important to the US-Japan alliance and concerns broad domestic interests of both countries, it is very hard for the U.S. and Japan to properly resolve this issue in the short run, while persistent trade frictions will bring difficulties to the US-Japan alliance.

In security, the US-Japan security relationship is the keystone for the US-Japan alliance. In recent years, the U.S and Japan have kept consulting each other on sharing the responsibilities within the alliance, conducting overseas military operations, and defending the Diaoyu Islands. Facing the higher USdemand of Japan to undertake more responsibilities for defense, Japan will have bigger space for military development, while the Self-Defense Force of Japan will have opportunities to participate in overseas military operations. Moreover, the U.S. and Japan have maintained very close coordination on the North Korean nuclear issue. Although there are some differences existing between the U.S. and Japan, the security cooperation within the alliance is continuing to strengthen, which will bring about increasing impact on regional and even global situation.

Since coming into office, Trump has given up the Asia-Pacific strategy of his predecessor without working out his own, but the American dependence on the alliance with Japan will be hard to change. The characters of the Trump administration’s foreign policy have determined that the trade and economic issue between the U.S. and Japan as well as the issue of sharing responsibilities within the alliance are two issues that are bound to bring about frictions between them. In addition, Trump’s intention to “encourage” Japan to increase its military capabilities will give Japan bigger space for military development, which will raise the influence of the alliance over the region and the world, but at the same time increase the hardship of coordination within the alliance.


III.The Reasons for the Trump Administration toAdjust Its Policy toward Japan


The Trump administration’s adjustment of its Japanese policy is closely associated with the internal and external environment facing the U.S., and its overall policy orientation. Faced with an international environment and domestic economic situation full of uncertainties, the U.S. has to maintain its global hegemony by depending on cooperation with its allies, which has also exerted a profound impact on the Trump administration’s adjustment of its Japanese policy.

First, trying to get bigger support politically from Japan. In recent years, the change in international power comparison has made the U.S. anxious about its hegemonic position, wishing to strengthen its comprehensive national strength by revitalizing domestic economy and enhancing the alliance with its allies. Sincecoming to office, Trump has intentionally promoted the Indo-Pacific strategy, expanding the Asia-Pacific region into a broader Indo-Pacific region, hoping to strengthen cooperation with allies and strategic partners so as to enhance the influence and control of the U.S. over the Indo-Pacific region. Whether the Asia-Pacific or the Indo-Pacific, Japan is a fatal ally of the U.S., as strengthening alliance with Japan will be an important support to the US global hegemony.

Second, insisting on “America First” economically, that calls for the improvement of trade relations with Japan. Trump is viewing the US economic connection with the outside world from a perspective of economic nationalism, giving more emphasis on fare trade rather than free trade, resulting in his inclination to view the economic relations among nations from a zero-sum perspective when formulating the US foreign policies. As Japan is both an important ally and a major trade partner of the United States, the Trump administration has to take great care in managing the security and economic relations within the alliance, to address the issue of trade deficit with Japan without weakening the US-Japan alliance.

Third, strengthening the alliance with Japan to “seek peace with strength” in security. As Trump believed, military strength is the important foundation for American hegemony. As an important strategic fulcrum of the U.S., Japan is a key partner the U.S. seeks to build a strong military chain in the Asia-Pacific region. When visiting Japan in November of 2017, Trump paid a special visit to the American military base at Yukota, showing the importance he attached to the US military forces stationed in Japan and the US-Japan alliance. The strengthened US-Japan alliance will help the U.S. remain as the dominant force in the Asia-Pacific region, and make its ability to maintain hegemony more accordant with its goal.


IV.The Development Trend of the US-Japan Relationship under the Trump Administration and Its Impact


Although there have been differences within the US-Japan alliance since Trump taking office, their bilateral relations remain intimate on the whole. As the American strategic interests remain as they used to be, the Trumpadministration cannot completely overturn the consistency and coherence of the US foreign strategy. The political intention to keep the US dominance in the international system will surely reflect itself in the foreign policy of the Trump administration. In its policy toward Japan, the U.S. will take providing protection as a bargaining chip to link different issues together so as to streamline its trade relations with Japan, and strengthen the US-Japan alliance. Although the US-Japan relationship is no longer adjusted in accordance with the “Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy”, Trump’s Asia-Pacific alliance strategy does not change subversively, compared with the one pursued by the Obama administration. As a major ally of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region or in the world, the U.S. is in need to get Japan’s support. From such important reports as the US National Security Strategy and the US National Defense Strategy issued by the Trump administration, the Asia-Pacific region still occupies an important position in the US national strategy. In view of the importance attached by the Trump administration to the Asia-Pacific region, the US-Japan alliance will definitely play an important role in the Asia-Pacific strategy of the United States. Although the “America First” and “transactionalism” insisted on by the Trump administration in its foreign policy have brought about a “Trump shock” to the relations between the U.S. and Japan, the strengthening trend of the US-Japan alliance will not change. With China’s growing strength posing greater challenges to the US-Japan alliance, the China factor has become an important factor influencing the US-Japan alliance. However, as there are differences existing on the policy toward China within the alliance, China may exert influence over the US-Japan alliance through diplomatic, economic and security means so as to mitigate the pressure imposed by the US-Japan alliance on China’s rise.



 (About the Authors: Dr. Ling Shengli is Associate Professor from the Institute of International Relations, China Foreign Affairs University; and Liu Qi is Graduate Student from the Institute of International Relations, China Foreign Affairs University. This article was received on June 10, 2018.)

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