It’s hardly a secret for international analysts that the ceremony of Donald Trump’s inauguration, just like his first steps in the new capacity have been carefully observed by the geopolitical opponents of the dominant world power, just like its closest allies. The text of Trump’s inauguration speech just like all of his statements was particularly carefully dissected in Japan – the principal US ally in the Asia-Pacific region.
As it’s been noted earlier, Tokyo approaches with extreme caution two interrelated points of Trump’s rhetoric, that have been expressed in different wording but have, more or less, preserved their initial message.
The first one was the intention to withdraw the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) that has been signed by 12 states back in 2016, with Japan being one of the signatory state. The second point was an effort to dramatically increase the load on the partners in multilateral and bilateral alliances. Donald Trump has even gone as far as to allude that the US may abandon a number of its allies if they continue to seek security behind Washington’s back.
Both of these points can be directly derived from the initial principle of “America First” that was announced by Donald Trump during his electoral campaign. This principle fully reflects the growing weariness of the American society from numerous international conflicts that were pushed down the throats of American taxpayers under the neocon slogans about the need for “spreading democracy”. Therefore, the main points of Trump’s inaugural speech shocked the better part of US political elites, along with the major political figures of US-allied countries, even though they were a pretty logical continuation of his electoral rhetoric.
This is evidenced by such passages as: “We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people.“; “…we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you, the people.“; “We have defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own, and spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.“
At the same time, one can find a point that Donald Trump has introduced into his rhetoric for the first time: “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones.” This line shows that we’re not dealing with some sort of “mad hatter”, but with a man who has put full responsibility for the destiny of his country on his own shoulders.
The US has been serving as one of the main pillars of the international world ever since the end of the Cold War. One can praise or criticize this pillar – it is a matter of personal preferences. Yet, one thing is clear: a hypothetical withdrawal of this pillar from the international system can trigger a complete collapse of it, which would have been inevitably followed by widespread ruin and chaos observed all across the globe. And it’s a big question if a comprehensive system of international relations will be created afterwards.
Today, Tokyo’s cautious approach to everything that the 45th President of the United States says and does can be attributed to the uncertainty about what policies will Washington be pursuing in the Asia-Pacific region, which is entirely natural. Unlike Europe, where the notion of the “growing Russian threat” is purely artificial, the tensions are mounting in the immediate vicinity of Japan’s borders. With complications mounting in the bilateral relations between China and Japan, Tokyo does not feel confident in the face of the rapidly expanding “Chinese dragon” without Washington’s support.
In this regard, the TTP deal was considered by the Japanese politicians, just like the former Obama administration, as a major economic and political binding force. The TTP was a sort of a backwater anti-China political structure for Washington to build its opposition upon. Therefore, Tokyo was bitterly disappointed when the White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer announced that American allies should not expect new president appeals to ratify the TTP. Four days later, Donald Trump himself confirmed the words of his assistant.
It should be mentioned that on December 10, 2016, mere days after the presidential election day in the United States, Japan’s parliament ratified the TTP agreement, as the future of this deal was one of the main negotiation points of the discussion Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had with Donald Trump last November.
Abe’s tour across the countries of South-East Asia held in mid-January 2017, was packed with instances of Japanese leader explaining the advantages of the TTP to all the states that signed it, including the United States. Those calls were soon backed by a total of six US ambassadors to Asia.
As it turned out, Japan’s “pleading and tears” were all in vain, since Donald Trump was determined to fulfill one of his key election promises to kill the TTP. However, it is unclear how this moves corresponds with his final inauguration speech thesis about the need to “strengthen” alliances with its military and political partners. Actually, finding a balance between the two conflicting goals announced by Donald Trump will be the main challenge for his administration.
Japan perceives the US decision to kill the TTP from the standpoint of its own regional problems. Now, according to Japanese experts, China’s role in global trade will be increasing sharply. Washington’s decision greatly complicates the entire picture of relations in the strategic triangle “US-China-Japan” and creates preconditions for even the most unexpected developments that no expert is able to predict.
A lot will get clear in the course of the upcoming meetings of Donald Trump with the leaders of both major Asian powers. For Abe such a meeting will be particularly relevant, as recent public opinion polls in Japan are showing that his voters are getting increasingly insecure about the prospects of US-Japan relations.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“