JAPANESE LEADERS HAVE recently faced a furious barrage of foreign policy and national security challenges, some of their own making. Each has presented itself as if a game of whack-a-mole — some in which the unhidden and unpredictable hand of President Trump has been prominent.
For decades, Japan’s leaders have been unwinding a long list of self-imposed postwar constraints on national security policy. After much salami-slicing — and without any revision of its “pacifist constitution’’ — Japan now has a strong Defense Ministry, openly discusses having a “tacit nuclear deterrent,” is acquiring formidable offensive weapons, and encourages arms exports. But despite its ambitious and enhanced capabilities, Tokyo still has its hands full in resisting or deterring foreign provocations — including from Washington.
One challenge was an invitation in July by Trump to participate in a “Coalition of the Willing,” a multilateral force to ensure safe passage for commercial tankers through the Persian Gulf. One might think this would be a simple choice for Tokyo, since it now has muscle to project power, and since 80 percent of its petroleum supply transits through the Persian Gulf. Moreover, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would seemingly wish to avoid retaliation from an easily irritated Trump — but Trump was not knocking on an open door. Nearly 60 percent of the Japanese public did not see the Gulf as the best first test of their enhanced muscularity, and risk-averse Japanese politicians were uncertain how the public would react to any loss of Japanese or Iranian lives in a contingency. Nor was Japan ready to abandon its improved relations with Tehran, which it sees as the key to stable oil flows from the other Gulf states. Washington received a polite stiff arm, a reported offer of surveillance and intelligence collected in waters more than 1,000 miles away from Iran.
Japan’s intelligence community received even greater attention when South Korea announced last month that it would abrogate an intelligence-sharing agreement the two countries signed in 2016. Japan had signed such an agreement with Washington in 2007, which quickly facilitated similar ones with other aligned states. But intelligence-sharing with Seoul (realized only under US pressure) came late, was highly circumscribed, and unless salvaged, will end in November.
Although they share a common ally, history and politics keep Japan and South Korea at arm’s length and limit their defense cooperation. Many have anticipated that the regional environment, growing steadily more dangerous, would bring these democracies closer together. A US military official in Japan declared with full confidence that “Japan-South Korean historical enmity will dissolve when self-interest kicks in.” We are still waiting as the stakes get higher and as mutual trust erodes further. Senior level talks resumed last week without results.
Other forces conspire to keep South Korea and Japan apart. They seem to have different perceptions of China; they compete economically and technologically in the same markets; and stubborn territorial disputes continue to stifle military cooperation. The bitter history of Japanese colonialism, manipulated by politicians in both countries, also undermines the relationship. Too many Japanese history textbooks have been written with erasers, and too many Korean commentaries have been crafted to privilege victimization. Material factors — including trade and technology pressure from Tokyo — as well as identity politics converge to frustrate intermittent efforts at lasting reconciliation.
Meanwhile, North Korea has been crying for attention, test-firing more than a dozen short-range ballistic missiles since early May — including two into the Sea of Japan during the G7 meeting. Trump declared that these tests did not violate his “agreement” with Chairman Kim, but Abe reminded the world that these launches “clearly violate the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”
Tokyo’s greatest concern is that Trump might reach an agreement with Kim to freeze his ICBM program without obtaining parallel guarantees to curtail development of short- and mid-range missiles. This would protect the United States, but leave Japan vulnerable.
The only mole to receive even a glancing whack was one that popped up at Biarritz after Trump and Abe met on the sidelines of the G7. Trump declared victory: Japan would come to the rescue of US farmers (presumed to be Trump voters) by making emergency purchases of US corn no longer headed for China. This “problem” was self-inflicted, of course, after Trump declared that trade wars were “easy to win.”
Abe had already become the champion of free trade in the Indo-Pacific region, and hunkered down to his main tasks — building new alignments in the region and flattering Trump. After all, while the Sino-US trade war attracted the most press in the United States, similar conflict has long been brewing with Japan as well, despite the hundreds of thousands of jobs its investments in US manufacturing and services have generated. A former Japanese ambassador to the United States aptly described the Biarritz announcement as “a Big ‘W’ win for the United States and a small ‘w’ win for Japan.” In New York last week, Trump and Abe signed a limited agreement amid great fanfare. But since tariffs on Japanese autos and other items remain on the bilateral trade agenda, and since Trump has threatened to include tariffs on the military alliance itself, we should expect more moles to pop up for Japan’s now veteran — but surely exhausted — diplomats and political leaders. Abe clearly expects this as well. Last month he made his senior trade negotiator his foreign minister and his foreign minister his defense minister.
Richard J. Samuels is professor of political science and director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His book “Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community’’ has just been published.