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Japanese Foreign Policy in the Trump Era

TOKYO – December will be a month of reconciliation for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as he meets with leaders from two countries that fought Japan in World War II: the United States and Russia.

It might seem promising that Abe is hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin and then being hosted by US President Barack Obama in such short order. But these events actually presage an uncomfortable, potentially destabilizing time for Japan – and all of East Asia.

On December 26, Abe will shake hands with Obama at Pearl Harbor – weeks after the US marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack there – to reciprocate Obama’s visit to Hiroshima’s atomic bomb sites last May. The mutual demonstration of forgiveness is meant to emphasize the values that Japan and the US now share.

But this gesture will come just ten days after Abe hosts Putin in his Yamaguchi prefecture hometown; and theirs will be a rather different sort of reconciliation. Russia is one of the few countries with which Japan never signed a peace treaty after 1945, because in the war’s final days, the Soviet Union occupied four then-Japanese islands just north of Hokkaido, the country’s northernmost main island.

The four islands sit at the southern tip of the Kuril Islands chain that separates the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. While they are not of any particular economic value beyond providing some fishing grounds, they do have sentimental significance for Japan – as is often the case with lost territories. And for Russia, which is never keen to cede territory anyway, the islands are strategically valuable; the Kremlin recently decided to install missile-defense systems on two of them.

While the dispute over the islands has prevented Japan and Russia from ever formalizing a peace agreement, both countries now seem to want to cuddle somewhat closer. Putin’s trip will be his first official visit to Japan in a decade; and Abe plans to honor him with personalized treatment; their discussions will take place in the manly environment of an onsen (hot spring), rather than in dull offices.

These overtures reflect Russia and Japan’s respective concerns about China. While Russia has warmed to China in recent years, not least by entering into a big natural gas deal and engaging in joint military exercises, it has largely done so as a gesture of defiance against the US and the European Union. In the long term, Russia does not want to look as though it is dependent on its increasingly powerful southern neighbor. Japan, for its part, fears Chinese domination of East Asia, and is more than happy to be Russia’s new Asian friend.

Previously, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Japan to invest in Russia’s Far East, owing to its participation in Western sanctions against Russia, imposed in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. But now that Donald Trump has been elected to the US presidency, those sanctions might be eased or eliminated. Indeed, this could explain why Abe broke protocol to become the first foreign leader to meet President-elect Trump in New York, on November 17.

Had Hillary Clinton won the election, Abe would have been forced to downplay expectations for his summit with Putin. Now, Putin and Abe will have more room to negotiate the contested islands’ status, and to develop a future framework for economic cooperation, which will likely include regular bilateral summits.

But this will only be a consolation prize for Abe. Trump’s victory has sounded a death knell for the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Obama had made the centerpiece of his Asia strategy. Abe supported the TPP, and saw it as a means to prevent China from becoming the rule-setter in Asian trade. Without the TPP, it is now increasingly likely that China will step into that role.

That will be a big loss for Japan, and the country will lose out even more if Trump follows through on his campaign promise to make allies such as Japan and South Korea pay more for their own defense. And if Trump continues to provoke China by communicating with Taiwan and questioning America’s “One China” policy, regional tensions will escalate. This, in turn, will only increase Japan’s defense needs, especially with respect to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China claims as its own.

So, Abe faces political danger, but he also has an opportunity. Trump’s election and escalating regional tensions have created the perfect pretext for Abe to push for his ultimate political goal: to abolish Article 9 – the pacifist clause in Japan’s post-war, US-imposed constitution, which limits the Japanese military to a “self-defense force,” and has generally kept Japanese defense spending at 1% of GDP.

Abe already has enough parliamentary backing to achieve this, and he could garner more with a snap election for the lower house in early 2017. But, beyond a two-thirds majority in both parliamentary bodies, constitutional reforms also require a simple majority in a national referendum. Achieving that could be harder, because pacifism runs deep in the only country to have been attacked with atomic bombs.

By shaking Obama’s hand in Hawaii, Abe will give a nod to the country’s modern pacifist creed, and signal that, despite his reputation as a nationalist, he also harbors deep feelings about the dangers of war. Such peaceful assurances, against the backdrop of growing tensions in East Asia, may or may not be enough to persuade Japanese voters that it is time to expand their country’s armed forces – 75 years after their great but fateful triumph in Pearl Harbor. This will be one of the central questions in Asian politics over the next few turbulent years.