Donald Trump. No current American political figure conjures up such polarized debate, and he’s become one of the most controversial presidential candidates in recent history. And one country that has been unable to avoid his gaze has been Japan. Trump has said a lot about this small island nation, but what would it all mean for the country if he were to get elected?
Trump has openly lobbied the promotion of nuclear proliferation, in stark opposition to the United State’s nuclear nonproliferation foreign policy. Trump has also stated that, by extension, he would retract the American “nuclear umbrella” which protects Japan (through the use of American nuclear weapons) in the instance of an attack.
Well I think maybe it’s not so bad… if Japan had that nuclear threat.
Trump’s primary evidence for arming Japan is the growing threat of North Korea, steadily working its way to crashing through the doors of the nuclear club. This, for Japan, is a very valid fear. Removing the protection of the nuclear umbrella could force Japan down the road of internal nuclear development.
If Japan were to be given nuclear weapons or allowed to develop them, countries in the region such as China or North Korea might respond with accusations of encroaching U.S. influence. China, already a nuclear power, could see Japan obtaining or developing nuclear weapons as a direct threat to its own expansion. Although unlikely to cause a “shooting war,” this would surely deteriorate already poor relations. Meanwhile, North Korea could use the move as evidence for their own need to develop nuclear weapons.
Without the nuclear umbrella, Japan would be hard pressed to move forward without their own nuclear deterrent.
Footing the bill
Trump’s very first statement on Japan referred to the cost of keeping U.S. bases here.
Of course they [Japan] should pick up all the expense[s]. Why are we paying for this? … I want them to reimburse us.
To maintain the bases, America spends approximately US$5.5 billion. Although Japan increased its funding to record high numbers in 2016, its contribution falls significantly short at only $1.7 billion.
Trump’s mercantile approach to the cost of the American military in Japan could haphazardly push public opinion into rejecting new or current bases (on Okinawa alone, a recent survey revealed that 71 percent of local residents felt the bases weren’t necessary).
If Trump were to actively demand increased payments, Japan would be faced with a choice: agree to the demands or be faced with large gaps within its military as American troops are forced to leave.
If the latter was to happen, we’d see a new Japan emerge. With only one percent of the GDP currently dedicated to the military (approximately ¥4.98 trillion), increased tensions within the region and a gap needing to be filled with the evacuating American forces, Japan would be forced to reposition its own armed forces and increase its current military budget.
The Japanese Constitution
Underpinning Trump’s bombastic rhetoric is his position on the Japanese Constitution and their ability (or lack thereof) to go to war.
You know we have a treaty with Japan where if Japan is attacked, we have to use the full force and might of the United States… if we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do anything. They can sit at home and watch Sony televisions, O.K.?
The specific treaty that Trump is referring to is the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which declares that if any land under Japanese administration is attacked, America must come to the aid of Japan. However, Japan is under no legal mandate to support America if the situation were reversed.
Trump is also criticizing the Japanese Constitution, specifically Article 9 which states:
“…the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”
Abe has long since been a critic of this article of the constitution. In recent years, ignoring widespread protests, he has sought to dismantle Article 9 and change the Japanese Constitution, allowing the country to not only go to war through the right of self-determination but also to have an active military. A poll conducted in 2016 found that 49 percent of respondents didn’t want to see such changes to the constitution.
Nonetheless, there are still large portions of the population who want to see Article 9 rescinded. Many of the right wingers within Japan view Trump as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”, who, if elected president, could provide Japan and Abe with the international legitimacy to finally dismantle Article 9.
Trump has also gone so far as to suggest he would be “…prepared to walk” if North Korea or another country were to attack Japan — effectively breaking the alliance the two countries have had since the 1960s. This would force Japan to, once again, adjust its military capabilities and potentially seek more regional allies, thereby establishing regional and local political blocs.
The fall of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)
The TPP is a trade deal which aims to combine the economies of the US, Japan and ten other countries. The loss of the TPP would have dire consequences for Abe who has recently poured significant political capital into sustaining and promoting the TPP in spite of fierce opposition from farmers and fishermen. As such, the next president could easily decide his fate as leader of Japan. Although unlikely to topple him from office, the end of the TPP could easily send shockwaves into the next election. Although Clinton has prevaricated her support for the TPP on several occasions, Trump has been outspoken since the very beginning, concluding that the the deal “…will send America’s remaining auto jobs to Japan.”
In the end
For Abe and the conservatives looking to reinvent Japan, Trump could be considered somewhat of a blessing in disguise, enabling the country to not only garner international support for changes to the constitution but also facilitating backing at home for nuclear development, evacuating American military personnel and further measures to confront regional threats.
If American-Japanese relations are able to survive the changes Trump would cause, and the country’s population isn’t alienated from their own constitution and desires, it will be an uncertain and potentially life-changing path ahead for Japan and its people.