A Tale of Two Allies: Why Japan and Australia See Two Different Trumps


The first few chaotic weeks of the Trump administration have brought divergent fortunes for America’s closest allies in the Asia-Pacific. Japan, which Trump consistently maligned during the 2016 campaign, has rushed to embrace the new president. Australia avoided his crosshairs on the trail, but was surprised by a jarring phone call between the new president and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and has become increasingly skeptical of him since the inauguration. It is no surprise that the Trump presidency should cause a stir in allied capitals. His longstanding antipathy for U.S. partners has been well-documented, after all. But these early experiences show that Trump’s iconoclastic proclivities and erratic temperament could engender allied responses far more complex than the well-known alliance dilemmas of entrapment and abandonment. As allies calculate how Trump’s transactional, protectionist, and neo-Jacksonian foreign policy will affect their security, economy, and domestic politics, they must evaluate how he poses risks to them in each of these domains and devise their engagement strategies accordingly.

Going Big in Japan

While campaigning, Trump made no secret of his disdain for Japan. He repeatedly criticized Tokyo’s financial contributions to its own security, arguing that if Japan did not pay up the United States should begin to withdraw troops, even if that inspired Japan to seek nuclear weapons. On multiple occasions, including since the inauguration, he called Japan a currency manipulator and criticized its trade practices. And he demonstrated almost no interest in Japan’s most pressing security concerns — North Korea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea. For his own part, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe placed his confidence in a Hillary Clinton presidency, meeting with the Democratic candidate in September —  an atypical pre-election move for the Japanese.

Yet upon Trump’s surprise win, Abe was on his doorstep. On November 18, he visited the president-elect in Trump Tower on his way to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, seeking to curry the new leader’s favor with a gold-plated golf club. Japan sought and received an early visit from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. During this trip, the Abe government was delighted to receive a reaffirmation of past U.S. declaratory policy that Article V of the U.S.-Japan defense treaty would apply to the Senkaku Islands.

Only a week later, Abe was on a plane to Washington for a presidential summit, where the two leaders issued a fulsome joint statement and Trump reiterated the Article V commitment. Abe continued to woo Trump over two days of golf at Mar-a-Lago, joining the President on Air Force One for the trip and bringing along his wife, Akie Abe, to spend time with Melania. But he was also eager to tackle substance, deploying his finance minister to Washington and presenting Trump with a meaty $150 billion economic package intended to create 700,000 American jobs. It also includes a proposal to build a high-speed rail in the United States. By all accounts, the visit appeared to be a success: The biggest stumble was an awkwardly lengthy Trumpian handshake that appeared to make Abe more than a tad uncomfortable.

“Trumbull” Down Under

In Canberra, things got off to a much choppier start. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was perfectly cordial to the new U.S. president upon his election and inauguration, sending him warm wishes. Reportedly, President Obama quietly requested that Turnbull and British Prime Minister Theresa May act as subtle foreign policy mentors to Trump in his early days. As center-right leaders from English-speaking countries, Obama hoped they would connect, and Turnbull appeared up to the task. But on his first official phone call with Trump just after the American president issued a controversial U.S. immigration ban, Turnbull raised the question of whether Trump would honor an Obama-era deal to accept 1,250 Middle Eastern refugees from Australia. Trump, who apparently had not been briefed on the deal, was irate, and he called the agreement “dumb.” He ended the call well before its scheduled time and immediately began to tweet his consternation over the deal. Several days later, someone in the White House leaked the details of the call, underscoring just what a contentious interaction this had been.

The Australian press was predictably shocked to learn that Turnbull had received such treatment, and alliance supporters on both sides of the Pacific scrambled to reiterate the importance of the relationship. As the Trump team tried to answer press questions about the call, it made other unforced errors, identifying the prime minister as the “President of Australia” and pronouncing his name “Trumbull” on several occasions, which only caused more eyes to roll in Australia. Three weeks later, the thunder down under has largely subsided. If anything, it may have ultimately benefited Turnbull politically by giving him a chance to simultaneously stand firm on the refugee deal and stand up to Trump. But policymakers and analysts alike now believe that Turnbull should proceed with caution and take a more distant approach to Trump, at least for the time being.

Tokyo’s Warm Embrace

Japan, the once-scorned ally, has taken an all-hands-on-deck approach to wooing Trump, while Australia, the relatively unscathed and once-willing tutor, is content to take some breathing space and hope that the new U.S. president moderates his approach with time. How do we explain these divergent approaches? The answer lies in the opportunities and risks that Trump presents for each.

Trump’s calls for Japan to “pay up” for defense have certainly rattled Japan’s leaders, but those same officials have also been buoyed by the administration’s early hawkishness on China. Trump’s early willingness to escalate over the One China Policy and hold it at risk coupled with his calls for a 350-ship Navy and more defense spending at home signaled to the Abe team that he was ready to engage in hard-nosed strategic competition with China. If this holds true, many in Tokyo believe that Japan’s role as a crucial American ally will be secure because of its geographic proximity to China and pivotal role in U.S. force posture in Asia.

Additionally, Abe sees some opportunity in Trump’s calls for allies to share more of the burden. For the last several years, he has been pushing through a major revision of Japan’s security legislation, reinterpreting the constitution to permit collective self-defense. Since Japan drafted its post-World War II “pacifist” constitution, it has forsworn its own right to aid in the defense of an ally, despite the fact that this is guaranteed by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. Abe hopes to reverse this and continue this process of making Japan into a more normal country on matters of war and peace. In doing so, he hopes to increase Japan’s defense spending. Relatedly, Trump’s relative lack of interest in American leadership of the international order in Asia may give Japan the chance to step up in regional institutions and to be a steward of international law, as was on display during Abe’s tour of Southeast Asia last month. For Abe, Trump’s security shakedown and prospective leadership vacuum it may present opportunities, so long as Japan’s fundamental role in U.S. strategy is not at stake.

On trade and economics, however, the Japanese prime minister has reason to be far more concerned. For years, Trump had called Japan a currency manipulator and criticized its trade practices. He did not attempt to hide his glee as he drove a stake through the heart of Abe’s beloved Trans-Pacific Partnership in his first days in office. Abe quickly warmed to the idea of accepting a bilateral U.S.-Japan trade deal, but the prime minister’s worries are more expansive. If Trump were to label Japan a currency manipulator — a possibility still on the table — this would crush Abenomics, which requires a weak yen and stable trade flows. This helps to explain Abe’s efforts to offer up an unsolicited investment package at his summit with Trump (there was little word of its fate after the meetings): The prime minister likely hopes to preempt Trump’s assessment that the United States is getting a raw deal in its investment relationship with Japan. Abe and his team appear to understand well that Trump’s protectionist tendencies run deep, but they see this proposal as an opening gambit in what is sure to be a series of possibly contentious engagements on currency and trade. The new bilateral economic dialogue is likely to be the site of these discussions.

Further, Abe and his advisors seem optimistic that they will be able to soften up Trump and even find opportunities for Japan in his presidency. Abe has managed to curry favor with other difficult leaders in the past. His pantheon of prickly pals already includes Vladimir Putin, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Recip Tayyip Erdogan. Japan also maintains incredibly strict immigration policies and admits almost no refugees from the Muslim world, so he will not face domestic outcry for cozying up to an American leader who is attempting a radical immigration overhaul. Moreover, he has the space to try: Abe’s approval numbers sit at a healthy 60 percent, while the main opposition party is weak and has little chance of mounting any meaningful challenge. With a right-leaning agenda of his own and a great deal of political security in Japan, Abe has the time and space to see if he can woo Trump away from those instincts that would most endanger Japan.

Canberra’s Cautious Distance

Several thousand miles south, Malcolm Turnbull confronts a different set of incentives entirely. Unlike Japanese leaders, who view a rising China as the primary and unequivocal security threat, Australians have a much more complex view of Beijing — and of Washington. They view the United States as an enduring security partner, but China as an increasingly important economic one. Those who see China as a pressing threat are generally policy types based in Canberra, while the business communities in Melbourne and Sydney do not share this view. Over the last year, Australia has had a vociferous domestic debate over the role of Chinese money in its politics, demonstrating that Chinese economic ties are not just an issue for the business community.

For years, Australians have been deliberating what China’s rise means for the regional balance of power and for U.S. leadership. This is most directly captured by Hugh White’s work arguing that the United States is in secular decline and must make room for China. Many view Trump’s election as the definitive moment the curtain dropped on the United States’ unipolar moment. And because Australia lies five thousand miles from China, these sorts of debates can take place with some comfortable distance. Few down under think that China will become a direct military threat or expect to call in the U.S. security guarantee to protect Australian sovereignty any time soon.

Indeed, unlike Japan, where top officials worry most about being abandoned to China over the East China Sea, Australian policymakers and analysts may be more immediately concerned about being entrapped. As alliance defenders were quick to remind the public after the Trump-Turnbull call, Australia has joined the United States in every major war since the beginning of the 20th century. This includes Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 15 years, and no other U.S. ally has contributed more personnel to the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Australians are not keen to take on new military commitments, however, and increasingly feel that the United States has become an inconsistent ally since 2001. They worry that the Trump administration may actively seek new conflicts in the Middle East and that its escalatory approach to Beijing could also result in a crisis or conflict with China that they might be asked to join.

Economically, Australia is not as immediately vulnerable to Trump’s vicissitudes. As in Japan, Australian leaders are dismayed by the failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and what it means for America’s regional economic engagement. But the United States and Australia already have a free trade agreement. Further, Australia’s mineral and agricultural exports are less likely to be affected by Trump, and Canberra is not on the new president’s list of alleged currency manipulators. Indeed, Australian officials are most worried that they could bear secondary effects of Trump’s punitive protectionism if he starts a trade war with China. Rather than rush to defend any of their own economic practices or preempt Trump’s policies, they prefer to watch his early moves.

Furthermore, immigration issues have a significant role in Australian domestic politics and have been highly contentious since 2001. Nearly 30 percent of Australia’s population was born in another country. Turnbull has not officially condemned Trump’s refugee ban, but has been called upon by opposition leaders to take a stand against it. Indeed, Turnbull felt the need to press Trump on the U.S.-Australia deal because refugee detention had become highly controversial. Most of the refugees in question had come to Australia from the Middle East and were held in island detention facilities for over a year in poor conditions. Moreover, Turnbull is in a politically vulnerable position and holds thinning margins in parliament. The Labour opposition party includes numerous alliance skeptics and regularly uses foreign policy issues to criticize the prime minister. As a result, Turnbull preferred to complete the refugee deal and then take his distance from Trump, at least for now.

Lessons Learned

Despite their vastly different experiences in and approaches to these early Trump weeks, the Abe and Turnbull teams have learned some of the same lessons.  Both now understand the immense challenges of personal engagement with Trump. Abe is likely to continue to pursue a deep and visible relationship with the president, while the Turnbull government is likely to try to minimize its interactions with the White House as a result. Both have learned that, true to reputation, Trump is highly transactional. Importantly, he sees each interchange as a one-shot “deal” unto itself, quite divorced from history or any shadow of the future. In Trump’s world, allies get no a priori special treatment, but must offer the president something immediately beneficial to earn his good graces. In his world, 70 years of partnership and loyalty do not appear to count for much.

Relatedly, both have learned that it is better to engage Trump on an almost exclusively personal front and instead seek to make policy progress at the working level. Since the infamous call, the most common critique of Turnbull’s engagement has been that he bothered to discuss the refugee agreement with Trump at all, rather than engaging in empty flattery over the phone and doing real business with the State Department. The Aussies can be expected to invest in their relationships at the State Department and Pentagon in the coming months.

Additionally, as both Tokyo and Canberra continue to assess Trump, both are increasingly concerned that he will actively seek to mix security and economic issues and will aim to bargain with bargain with allies over trade and currency policy in exchange for continued defense commitments. This makes officials in both capitals deeply uncomfortable and wary of the form that Trump’s transactionalism will take.

Both countries are, however, looking to mitigate Trumpian uncertainty in some of the same constructive ways. Japan and Australia both believe that his foreign policy unpredictability makes it more urgent that U.S. alliance partners strengthen ties among themselves to transform the hub-and-spokes system into a framework a little less reliant on Washington’s whims.

This early behavior also provides some lessons for alliance managers and international relations theorists. We often refer to the twin alliance dilemmas of entrapment and abandonment, whereby one ally pulls the other into an unwanted conflict or leaves the other stranded in a conflict it had promised to join. Of course, these are wartime alliance extremes, and many less rash peacetime permutations are possible. We generally think of allies embracing or distancing themselves from their patron based on their security needs, but in the Age of  Trump, where the prospect of economic punishment looms large, trade and currency policy may also shape alliance behavior. Moreover, when the new leader of a longtime ally is attempting an epochally chaotic and radical policy overhaul, the security patron’s domestic agenda may also have meaningful effects on allied support.

Many U.S. alliances have been through tough times before, and their institutional strength makes it highly likely that they will survive the Trump presidency. But when partner fears broaden beyond the security realm to include economics and even U.S. domestic policy, allied angst will also grow beyond issues of crisis and conflict to comprise non-security domains. Particularly because nearly all of America’s allies are democracies, allied leaders may feel they are particularly constrained as they craft their strategies for engaging Trump. For the last 70 years, U.S. allies have always had a privileged place in American foreign policy. As that distinction dissolves and the risks to them multiply, they will surely have no single — and no singularly correct — response.


Mira Rapp-Hooper is a Senior Fellow in Asia-Pacific Security at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. This article is based on findings from recent trips to Japan and Australia, where Dr. Rapp-Hooper met with senior officials from both governments.