Trump’s ‘America-first’ vow ignites a ‘Japan-first’ debate

Pacifist constitution in firing line as Washington demands that Japanese step up

Among the rhetorical grenades lobbed by Donald Trump during his presidential campaign was his threat to Japan and South Korea: pay America more for the cost of our soldiers or lose their protection.

The threat jolted Washington's closest Pacific allies. Japanese officials hope that US defence secretary James Mattis, who will sit down with his Japanese counterpart on Saturday, will reset the alliance back to where it was in 2016.

There seems little hope of that.

Japan hosts more than 50,000 US troops and dozens of military bases – more than any other American ally. Trump seemed unaware that Japanese taxpayers have paid 6.6 trillion yen (€54 billion) toward their cost over the past four decades.

Japan’s location confers key logistical advantages on the US, helping it project military power across a vast arc, from the western Pacific to the Indian Ocean.

This arrangement dates back to the aftermath of the second World War, when the victorious Americans wrote Japan a new constitution that prohibited it from maintaining offensive military forces.

In a dangerous neighbourhood dominated by cold war rivals Russia and China, the Americans quickly came to regard Japan's pacifist constitution as an anachronism, but its overwhelming popularity defeated all political attempts to change it.

US military shield

Japan was allowed the minimum necessary force to protect its peace and independence. Defence outside the country came from the US military shield, including the nuclear umbrella.

For decades, Japan could keep military costs at about 1 per cent of GDP, allowing it, in the words in the words of Japanese economist Makoto Itoh, to "fish in the free waters" of the capitalist world.

The political rise of Donald Trump threatens to upend this arrangement.

A key tenet of the Trump doctrine is that the United States, which spends about 3.4 per cent of GDP on military outlays, pays too much to protect its allies. Under prime minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has passed a series of record defence budgets, but the nearly 5 trillion yen tagged for fiscal 2017 is still below 1 per cent. Mattis may try to push it to shoulder more of the alliance's military burdens.

Japanese hawks have long wanted their country to develop independent military capacity, and so may embrace that demand. They will also work harder toward a key long-term goal: rewriting the pacifist constitution.

"The constitution does not say how we are supposed to protect ourselves if we are attacked," says Yoshitaka Shindo, a leading cabinet hawk. "It assumes another country, the United States, will come to our rescue."

A new paper by the Institute for International Policy Studies, a think tank considered close to Abe’s Liberal Democrats party, says Japan could be “profoundly affected” by Trump’s America-first policy. It recommends that Japan aim to hike defence spending to 1.2 per cent of GDP and develop better counterstrike capabilities of its own, including cruise missiles.

In a dog-eat-dog world, "We must respond to America first-ism with Japan first-ism," says Masato Inui, executive editor of Sankei Shimbun, a right-wing newspaper.

These discussions will sharpen in the coming months, especially if the Trump White House follows through on its sabre-rattling against China and North Korea.

Rein in China

Secretary of state Rex Tillerson last month pledged to rein in China's maritime activities in the South China Sea. And Trump has vowed to stop Pyongyang from developing ballistic missiles that target the US.

Mattis, a four-star general dubbed “Mad Dog”, did little to turn down the rhetorical heat during a stopover in South Korea on Friday. “Any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming,” he said.

Few Japanese officials relish the prospect of this brave new world. For one thing, having to replace US military power would entail immense costs. One study, by researchers at Japan’s National Defence Academy, estimates that a US military withdrawal could cost Japan more than 25 trillion yen.

But for better or worse, the Trump era will force Japan, along with everyone, else, to make tough choices. Usually when politicians are elected, people want them to follow through on their campaign promises, says Shindo. “With President Trump, it’s the opposite.”

Read More