Normally December in Washington, D.C. is filled with one thing and one thing only: unending boredom. Where the rest of the year is filled with momentous events, tittle tattle and intrigue, the 12th month drags in on a stream of idle chitchat about holiday plans.
Not this year, though. The capitol of the world’s most powerful nation is somewhat preoccupied with what has been the biggest shock wave to hit the beltway since Watergate — Donald Trump’s victory in the race for president of the United States. Around these parts, the topic of appointments to the incoming administration is nothing short of an obsession.
Scores of foreign affairs analysts here in Washington balked at candidate Trump’s rather simplistic campaign message: that he would “Make America Great Again” with a policy vision that put “America first” while asking the country’s allies to share more of the burden for their own security. Some were even moved to put their name to various petitions denouncing Mr Trump and his positions.
But many Americans — myself included — took a very different view. Having been raised in the state of Rhode Island — which was gutted decades ago of the blue collar jobs and economic security many Americans feel to be a thing of the past — I could identify with his message. And on foreign policy, I found his instincts refreshing. Focusing on great power relations and rebuilding America’s military while avoiding regime change and nation building abroad seemed like the foundations for a foreign policy all Americans could support.
As campaigning has given way to the tough task of crafting policy, Trump’s foreign policy vision for Asia will be vital. And while we don’t have all the specifics yet, the president-elect has assembled a crack team of experts that should make Asia hands in Washington smile. Smart analysts like Michael Pillsbury, Peter Navarro, Randy Forbes (as a potential pick for Secretary of the Navy) and others — people who advocate a role for America in Asia that is about strengthening important alliances and deterring those who want to shatter the status quo, none less than the People’s Republic of China — are music to my ears.
But would Trump kill the US-Japan alliance?
While picks like those named above should reinforce the notion that Trump will not make major changes that weaken America’s security position in Asia, for some the rhetoric of the campaign still stings. Some fear Trump would seek to renegotiate critical commitments, including the US-Japan alliance. Others worry he would do the unthinkable: actually end the alliance and force Tokyo to provide for its own security.
So what would a Japan without America look like? How would Tokyo provide for its own security? Should Japan seek nuclear weapons, like Trump seemed to suggest when asked by reporters during the campaign? The responses I received when polling various national security and foreign policy experts here in Washington on these very questions was unanimous; in fact, most laughed at me when I raised them.
“Trump is not pulling out of the US-Japan alliance. Period. End of the story,” retorted one long-serving Pentagon official who agreed to speak with me on condition of anonymity.
“First of all, we have to separate campaign hype from reality — Trump has already done that by meeting with Abe, the first foreign leader he saw. How much of a stronger symbol do we need that the alliance is secure? The reality is that American presidential candidates have been talking about shifting the burden to allies for decades now. When they get into office the same thing happens every time. They see the reality of America’s position in the world, and when one talks about the US- Japan alliance, the actual ‘cost’ is nothing compared to the benefits.”
Those benefits aren’t only security ones; US industry does well out of the relationship too. As the Pentagon official outlined, the money America makes from Japan in the military and security sphere — specifically from selling it hardware built by American defense contractors — is, to use a Trump phrase, “big league.”
This week offered the perfect example, when Tokyo received its very first F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Japanese and American pilots will train together on the US$1 trillion aircraft, developing tactics and strategies to overcome the greatest of challenges in the sky. And with Tokyo considering the possible deployment of a US-built THAAD missile defense system, the alliance seems to be on positive footing.
While all of the experts I polled considered a US-Japan alliance breakup out of the question, one was willing to examine the issue in what he called “a thought experiment.”
“The reality is that American presidential candidates have been talking about shifting the burden to allies for decades now. When they get into office the same thing happens every time. They see the reality of America’s position in the world”
“So let’s say Washington and Tokyo break up, it would take years to unravel such an integrated partnership,” said a former State Department official who asked not to be named.
“First of all, how quickly can you break down and move out all of that military equipment? The military bases we have in Japan are of tremendous size. Also, does Japan then spend the billions of dollars needed to replace all of the key US military capabilities that Washington provides? Does that mean a formal change in Japan’s constitution to a more offensive mindset?”
From there, the questions get even more complex.
“How does the rest of Asia respond to what would have to be a massive Japanese rearmament? Does China begin a massive arms buildup? What about South Korea? And what about the weapons Tokyo purchased and will purchase from America? Will those contracts be canceled? The questions seem almost limitless, and the problems created seem almost unending.”
Why Trump must focus on Asia
Besides panning the idea of a US-Japan breakup, many of the experts and officials I spoke with actually saw an opening for the opposite of what I was asking about: a strengthening of ties between Washington and Tokyo in the face of Chinese moves in the East and South China Seas and constant saber-rattling by North Korea.
“With the team Trump seems like he has in place and who he could tap in the future, I see it highly likely America could actually fulfill the promise of America’s ‘pivot’ to Asia in a way Obama could never do,” noted a retired senior Department of Defense official who asked not to be named.
“Once Trump begins to really consider in detail all the challenges America faces in Asia, he will quickly realize that he will need allies and partners to make sure hotspots don’t become hot wars. Japan has been a partner and friend for decades, and he will lean on them for help more than he realizes.”
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former US President Richard M. Nixon, as well as Executive Editor of The National Interest. In the past, Kazianis has managed the foreign policy communications of The Heritage Foundation and served as Editor of The Diplomat.