Can Japan Risk a Trump Reelection?
Member Activities

Can Japan Risk a Trump Reelection?


APLN member Yoichi Funabashi argued that Japan must formulate a plan in the event of the former U.S. president’s return. Read the original post on the Japan Times website here.

“Amid the emergence of one geopolitical risk after another, Trump becoming president again is the biggest geopolitical risk of all.”

So said a recent lunch companion of mine, a manager at an automobile manufacturer. Donald Trump recently announced that, if he becomes the American president again, he would apply an automatic 10% tariff on all U.S. imports. The previous Trump administration attempted to impose substantial tariffs on Japanese automobiles — a move that was halted by the Abe administration. My companion was already bracing himself for the possibility that, if re-elected, Trump would recklessly push through similar tariffs.

Within the government, some have voiced concern that Trump might attempt to collect exorbitant “protection fees” from American allies. The previous Trump administration attempted to quintuple the South Korean government’s financial contribution toward maintaining the U.S. military presence in its country and quadruple Japan’s.

If Trump is re-elected, the first casualty may well be the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Trump might attempt to broker a denuclearization “deal” with North Korea at another summit with Kim Jong Un by reviving the U.S. concessions proposed during the previous U.S.-North Korea summit: an official declaration ending the Korean War and a halt to joint military exercises with South Korea. This would deal a devastating blow to the administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol.

The collapse of Washington’s alliance with Seoul would also fuel the argument for South Korea going nuclear. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump indicated his support for such an outcome: “Can I be honest with you? It’s going to happen anyway.” This time, Kim has grown stronger as a result of Vladimir Putin’s indulgences and may even make a dangerous gamble. Trump might also encourage the nuclear option for both South Korea and Japan.

Others tell me they are actually more worried about the U.S. wavering in its commitment to Taiwan. While Taiwan is not a formal U.S. ally, the Taiwan Relations Act authorizes the U.S. president to approve military action in defense of Taiwan. The stability of the Taiwan Strait is being maintained — just barely — through a combination of China’s “strategic patience,” the U.S.’ “strategic ambiguity” and Taiwan stopping just short of pushing for formal independence. This stability is now crumbling as a result of China’s military offensive and political retaliation from the U.S.

There is also the danger that the social-media-enabled “megaphone diplomacy” will further damage U.S.-China relations. Trump’s tendency to use Taiwan as a “pawn” in his game with China should keep us on high alert.

A more fundamental risk accompanying Trump’s re-election is the doubts it would raise about American leadership in the world. Under Trump, the U.S. might turn its back on the free and open international order, withdraw from multilateral agreements, overwhelm its partners in bilateral deals and, finally, barricade itself behind an “America First” policy. A United States that is so lacking in confidence will not earn the respect of the rest of the world.

There is no doubt that Putin would welcome Trump’s return to power. He will certainly not make any effort to end the Ukraine war before the November 2024 U.S. presidential election.

It is not so simple for Xi Jinping. Within the increasingly fractured U.S. political landscape, taking a hard line on China is the one issue on which bipartisan support is solidifying. Even Trump cannot afford to ignore this in order to make some ill-considered deal with Xi. On the contrary, he would likely take an even stronger stance against China.

It would also be a huge loss of face for Xi if Trump somehow managed to achieve an end to the war in Ukraine with Putin. Bringing Russia into the fold could be legitimized under the strategic guise of “teaming up with Russia against China,” as Republican presidential primary candidate and Trumpist Vivek Ramaswamy puts it. However, there is no doubt this would be a highly opportunistic game.

On the other hand, if Trump’s alliance-bashing ends up weakening the Western alliance, China will be presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It would also push China toward adventurist diplomatic and military offensives in Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf.

The Japanese government has yet to come up with a “contingency plan” in the event of Trump’s re-election. This would likely include strengthening ties with Republican members of Congress, reviving personal connections with members of the Trump administration and conducting in-depth dialogue with China hawks. The key question, however, is how to build a relationship with Trump himself.

I have also overheard the sentiment: “If only Abe was here. …” Though Japan would want to rely on the “Donald-Shinzo” relationship, we have lost Shinzo Abe.

For a long time, the Liberal Democratic Party favored the GOP, and Japan was seen as Republican territory in Washington. However, a Trump re-election would transform the Republican Party beyond recognition.

There is also a very real danger that the resulting backlash would radicalize and drive the Democratic Party further to the left. This polarization in American politics will further destabilize the world. The prospect of Trump’s return to power is indeed the greatest geopolitical danger facing a Japan without Abe.

Related Articles