On November 17, President-elect Donald Trump is set to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Trump Tower in New York. This first quasi-summit with an Asian leader was prompted by Abe’s casual proposal in their November 9 phone call that they get lunch or dinner while Abe is in the neighborhood on his way to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Peru. Asia and Europe will watch this meeting closely.
I suspect Abe will strike a good rapport with Trump. The Japanese prime minister is a listener, for starters, and his friends include the world’s strongmen: Modi, Putin, Netanyahu, Erdogan. Though not himself the product of an anti-elite wave (Japan experienced that in 2009 when the left-of-center Democratic Party of Japan swept into power), Abe has his own nationalistic edge. He is a decider, and Trump will recognize that right away. Still, beneath the surface of what will likely be a friendly encounter, Japan — like the rest of Asia and the world — is deeply anxious about what a Trump presidency means for its own security in the face of growing threats from China and North Korea.
This anxiety is reflected in post-election polls in which close to 70 percent of Japanese expressed negative views of a Trump presidency (meanwhile, half of Australians before the election said their country should distance itself from the United States if Trump is elected, despite record high support for alliance with the United States overall). Some of Trump’s core advisors have cavalierly told Asian embassies in Washington that the United States might need to reconsider U.S. forward military presence in Asia or take a break from Asia in order to focus on terrorism or economic issues at home. Trump’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership may ruin Abe’s fall legislative session, which had been focused on ratifying the deal in order to keep some momentum even as the pact languishes in the United States. Anti-American commentators on the far right and far left in Japan are welcoming Trump’s election and calling for greater separation from the United States. Very similar dynamics are occurring in Australia, South Korea, and among other American allies in the region.
On the other hand, Tokyo and the rest of the region are seeing signs of reassurance as well. The most recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that two thirds of Americans think globalization is good and 60 percent support free trade, while Pew polls show that a significant majority of Americans are ready to defend Japan or South Korea if they are attacked. It appears that this anti-establishment election was not driven by pro-isolationist voter sentiment. The selections of Mike Pence as vice president and Reince Priebus as chief of staff have increased hopes that more conventional national security figures like Kelly Ayotte, Steve Hadley, or Bob Corker will take top national security jobs, though that remains an open question. The day before the election, Trump advisors Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro published a critique of Obama’s pivot to Asia in Foreign Policy that could have been written by any number of us at Shadow Government.
With the Republican Congress poised to break the Budget Control Act and sequestration, Japanese defense officials also see the prospect of real resources emerging for the military aspects of the rebalance to Asia. Gray and Navarro point out in their article that Asian allies will be “respectfully” asked to increase their share of defense spending, but that is a far cry from Trump’s election comments that he would not defend allies that freeload. It is also a request that Abe will be inclined to entertain, though he will rightly point out that Japan should get some credit for shouldering more risk in the alliance with his changes to the interpretation of the Japanese constitution. If the two leaders want a positive outcome from their meeting — and it appears both do — then they will have a lot of common ground to work with.
That said, the Japanese public will not easily forget statements made during the campaign that shook their confidence in the United States. Some of Japan’s bureaucrats are urging Abe to push back by defending the TPP and Japan’s own record on burden sharing. Abe will probably stick their talking points in his back pocket and instead focus on shaping the broad contours of a Trump strategy for the U.S.-Japan alliance and Asia overall, where there currently is none. He’ll be doing the rest of Asia and the president-elect a huge favor if he can pull it off.
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