Japan’s Quiet Confidence in America’s Next President
Seventy years after World War II, there is no alliance in the world as strategic or as strong as that between the United States and Japan. Despite, and in some cases precisely because of, the changes in the world — including the rise of China and developments in both America and Japan — there also has never been a more optimistic moment for the alliance. As a result, it should come as no surprise that Japan today is keenly focused on America’s 2016 presidential election given all that is at stake.
Having just returned from the Mt. Fuji Dialogue, the leading U.S.–Japan forum in the world, it was refreshing to observe that there is no country in the world more eager for an American 21st century than Japan. Given Tokyo’s own rivalry with Beijing in Asia and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s keen focus on international affairs, the Japanese government is eager to work with the next American president, who it is confident will see the world in similar terms regardless of who wins in 2016. Abe’s “Abenomics” agenda at home, which has led to unprecedented domestic national security reforms and inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the region’s most far-reaching free trade agreement, are bets on the future of American global leadership.
Interestingly, contrary to conventional wisdom that Japan prefers Republicans for their more muscular foreign policies and perceived advantage on national security, Tokyo this time seems to prefer the Democratic presidential candidate whom it knows best. Hillary Clinton made Japan her first international trip as secretary of state and championed America’s “pivot to Asia” with well-known Asianists such as Kurt Campbell and James Steinberg.
In an election season that has thus far featured such extremes as Senators Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders along with leading outside contenders such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson, Japan’s calm faith in America’s democracy seems almost anachronistic or misplaced. However, almost every official I spoke with in Tokyo expects a match-up between Secretary Clinton and Senator Marco Rubio. In their eyes, Japan cannot lose given how well both candidates know Japan as a critical global ally. Japan is eager to expand its global role under the rubric of the U.S.–Japan alliance and the American-led international order.
Rather than pulling away from its own continent and global responsibilities in favor of a mercantilist foreign policy (much like Britain is today), Tokyo is doubling down on internationalism, beginning in Asia. Japan is still the world’s third-largest economy, Asia’s only G-7 country and host of the group’s 2016 meetings, Asia’s non-permanent representative on the UN Security Council for the next two years, and venue for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. As America’s primary ally in the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, there is no power more vested in America’s international order in East Asia and keen to challenge China to be a more responsible global actor. Beijing’s buildup of artificial islands and territorial claims are challenging the freedom of navigation. It is not lost on Tokyo that America has historically been much more willing to go to war over the freedom of the global commons than in response to terrorist attacks. The lack of consensus in Washington over China’s aggressive behavior regionally worries Japan, but many in Tokyo were equally concerned to hear some presidential candidates call for the cancelation of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent Washington visit. No geography in the world seems as likely as the South China Sea to trigger a major-power conflict given the number and intensity of disputes between various countries and China that any new American president must carefully navigate. What Tokyo is seeking most is strong leadership in Washington that can manage growing tensions in its region and also ensure that Beijing does not divide and conquer in disputes with each of its neighbors.
Japan’s rivalry with China has driven Prime Minister Abe on unprecedented international trips in search of friends in Latin America, the Middle East, and Central Asia, in addition to Japan’s more traditional regional allies. Tokyo often offers a complementary approach to a Western agenda without the cultural or historical baggage in regions outside of its own. As one of Asia’s first and most successful democracies and developed economies, many traditionally anti-Western populations across the world look to the Japanese experience as a model for development or inspiration. While Washington typically highlights countries’ often-uncomfortable perceived deficiencies of democracy, freedom of the press, or human rights, Tokyo focuses on pragmatic areas of cooperation, especially commercial ties. Historically Japan’s greatest strength has been its weakness, meaning that it is not seen as acting like the overbearing or “imperialist” powers that America, China, or Russia are often accused of when they invest or make “strategic partnerships.”
Abe’s close relations with the leaders of Israel, Turkey, and Russia have often allowed Tokyo to play good cop to Washington’s bad cop, to the benefit of both, even when U.S.–Japanese views are not totally aligned. For example even as President Obama’s relations with President Vladimir Putin have become frosty, Abe has maintained close personal relations with the Russian leader — despite Japan’s cooperation with Western sanctions over Ukraine — making him one of the few global leaders still able to work pragmatically to maintain Japan’s diplomatic and economic investments in the country. While jihadists and Russia have dominated Washington’s national security attention, Asia still remains the area that demands proactive American policy above all others, given the number of great power intersections that lie here.
Having watched President Obama valiantly struggle to pivot to Asia as he tried to keep America militarily out of the Middle East, Japan appreciates the balancing act the next president must engage in. Especially after the Paris attacks it’s clear that the next president will face continued turmoil in the Middle East that will require reactive firefighting. While traditional American foreign policy thinking may turn towards NATO or other transatlantic partners to help shoulder the cost and responsibility of this global leadership, there actually is no more willing partner than Japan. With Abe’s newly established national security council, legislative defense reforms, and commitment to proactive contribution to peace abroad, there has never been a better time for an American president to look across the Pacific to his or her counterpart in Tokyo for help globally.
America has already embarked on its transpacific century. Despite all of the criticism lobbed at President Obama’s handling of foreign policy during his tenure, the one general area of consensus seems to be on his emphasis on Asia, where he spent part of his childhood. Whereas the Middle East has seemed like an endless security quagmire from Libya, Yemen, Iraq, to Syria, Asia offers the antidote in economic opportunity from India’s incredible rise to Japan’s rejuvenated Abenomics agenda. The next president will inherit all the challenges faced by his or her predecessors in maintaining the peace, prosperity, and stability that Asia has enjoyed thanks to American leadership since the end of World War II. Reassuring America’s allies in the region will require greater foreign policy specificity than most presidential candidates have offered so far in the campaign. Yet even as pre-election rhetoric heats up, Japan is quietly confident that no matter who the next president is, she or he will agree with Tokyo’s assessment of the value of its “seamless bilateral alliance.”
Joshua W. Walker, Ph.D. (@drjwalk) leads the Japan work of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States as a Transatlantic Fellow and is a former Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of State.