Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Speaking out

Yasushi Tomiyama

【#1119】Japan Should Also Prepare for Trump’s Comeback

Yasushi Tomiyama / 2024.02.21 (Wed)

February 19, 2024

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, who is almost certain to become the Republican presidential nominee this year, has sparked controversy by effectively encouraging Russia to attack North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies that fail to spend enough money for their defense. It cannot be ruled out that Trump, if winning the November general election, would also make some demands regarding the Japan-U.S. alliance. Japan should prepare for all possible scenarios and plan its responses.

Trump’s dangerous remark shocking Europe

Trump’s remark came at a campaign rally in South Carolina on February 10. Trump recounted an episode about a NATO member’s president who asked him if the United States would protect the NATO ally from a Russian attack even if the ally fails to spend enough for defense. Trump quoted himself as answering: “No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage [Russians] to do whatever the hell they want.”

As no one other than Trump has testified the accuracy of the episode, some interpret it as a fiction for Trump to boast that more NATO allies increased their defense spending beyond 2% of gross domestic product under his pressure. However, his remark ignored NATO’s collective defense clause and seemed to encourage Russia to invade NATO members, dealing a great shock to Europe. It was inevitable for the remark to be criticized as a dangerous one that weakens NATO’s deterrence and undermines the postwar international order.

It is almost certain that Trump would cut off military aid to Ukraine, and many observers worry that he might withdraw the United States from NATO. Regarding Asia, however, I remember a former senior Japanese foreign ministry official optimistically expecting that Trump would not immediately destroy the Japan-U.S. alliance because a second Trump administration would regard China as the biggest threat and the alliance with Japan should be essential to counter China. I also hear that a staff group supporting Trump on the policy side is eager to forge a military partnership with Japan.

However, Trump is well known for his unpredictability. It is doubtful if he would listen to the advice of his aides because he might be confident of his track record in his first term. Japan will be urgently required to assume the worst and prepare for the comeback of the Trump administration.

Opportunity to enhance Japan-U.S. security structure

The Trump administration, during its first term, had unofficially asked Japan to triple the host nation support for the U.S. forces stationing in the country. It had requested South Korea to quintuple the support. In his second term, Trump may present similar demand to both Japan and South Korea, threatening withdraw U.S. forces if the requests are rejected. He may offer a “deal.”

Trump has also long argued that the one-sidedness of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, where only the United States is obliged to defend its ally, is unfair and should be revised. Although the Shinzo Abe administration paved the way for Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense on a limited basis by changing the interpretation of the constitution, the exercise is strictly restricted to cases such as when Japan’s survival as a nation is threatened, falling short of achieving the reciprocity of the Japan-U.S. alliance.

In order to keep its sole ally, the United States, in Asia, Japan must step up its self-help efforts and seriously consider improving the reciprocity of the security treaty. Rather, Japan should take advantage of the possibility of the Trump administration's comeback to consider measures to fundamentally strengthen the bilateral security structure.

Yasushi Tomiyama is a senior research fellow and Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a former foreign news editor and bureau chief in Washington, D.C., London, and Bangkok for the Jiji Press.