BROOKINGS – “U.S.-Japan Relations in the Trump Era” was the topic for a Monday evening lecture in SDSU’s Crothers Engineering Hall by Professor Toshihiro Nakayama, professor of American politics and foreign policy at Keio University, Japan. The event was sponsored by the South Dakota World Affairs Council.
Earlier in the day, Nakayama and Dr. Bob Burns, distinguished professor emeritus and council chairman stopped by The Brookings Register for an interview. Throughout the visit Nakayama focused on the role of the United States in its dealing with Asian nations, with a special emphasis on the alliance of the United States and Japan.
He noted that while the United States is not geographically located in the Asian-Pacific part of the world, it is “functionally there and functionally part of the Asian-Pacific” area.
“You are part of Europe – culturally, militarily and economically,” he said, adding, “You are part of Asia Pacific as well.” And he sees possibilities for the United States in East Asia and Asia Pacific, “the economic engine of the world” with China as the second biggest economic power and Japan as the third” and “so many other countries rising in terms of economy and trade.”
Trade issues in that part of the world are being impacted by the United States withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January of this year. About a dozen nations had signed on to the pact.
“The U.S. has to be a player and a resident power in terms of economy and trade,” Nakayama said. “The TPP was a new form of American economic engagement in the region. It was about establishing a high spec economic/regional order with many of the like-minded countries in the region. It was with Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries jumped onboard.”
He added that China was not in, however, because the TPP was more than just a simple trade and business agreement. It included labor rights, environmental rights and international property rights.
He explained, “In order for China to join, they’d have to change their system dramatically, and it would have to change in a direction the present communist party would not like. Not a major regime change, but undergo a major societal shift in thinking on business and economy.”
Nakayama said the TPP “would uphold a regional order that is desirable for countries like the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. It was a form of American economic commitment.”
United States and Japan, a strong bilateral agreement
While the United States has abandoned the TPP, it has continued to honor bi-lateral agreements, one nation with another, in the area. Nakayama said such agreements when “stacked up” can be workable in economic terms, but “bi-laterals do not have the function of upholding the regional order – exactly because it’s bi-lateral.”
For the United States and Japan, however, a bi-lateral agreement has had a positive impact.
“In terms of the alliance (security), American commitment under Mr. Trump has deepened more than between President Bush or President Obama,” the professor explained. “It seems like the personal chemistry between the two leaders, (Prime Minister Shinzo Abe) and Donald Trump, seems quite good.”
Nakayama did note that while the Japanese are at times concerned by the president’s self-admitted “unpredictability,” which the president considers a strength, they “are satisfied now but have a little bit of worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow or a week later or a month later.”
The professor did note, however, that security must be tied to economic issues in the region –“If you want America to really be there in terms of being a resident power, you have to be part of the East Asian economic order. And that part is missing.”
In reference to the alliance of the United States and Japan, Nakayama used the analogy of a car with one wheel functioning: military security. But that wheel must be joined to economics.
Nakayama did note that where the threat of North Korea is concerned, Japan “is not as worried as the others are, because we’re pretty tough on North Korea; and we’re pretty tough on China as well.”
He added that Japan has a “peace constitution” and the capability to defend itself but not the capability to be an aggressor. Japan provides and pays a big piece of the cost of American bases in Japan.
Nakayama suggested that it’s possible that Japan should play a bigger role in its own defense, but that would demand an amendment to its constitution. Additionally, Nakayama voiced approval for the United States taking a tough stance militarily against North Korea while at the same time pointing out a need for tempering that position with diplomacy and a foreign policy strategy.
Bottom line: Japan finds worrisome what it sees as an imbalance between America’s military force and its diplomacy. “The balance is a bit toward the military side. And the (American) state department itself is clearly being marginalized and seen with skepticism.”
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]