TOKYO (Reuters) - Eighteen months after Donald Trump became U.S. president and started shaking up global diplomacy, Japan is waking up to the risks of an alliance based on dollars and deals rather than shared values and security interests.
For decades, U.S. and Japanese leaders have stressed that the two countries’ alliance was based on values such as democracy, freedom and the rule of law. One of Asia’s oldest security relationships, it placed Japan under a U.S. defense umbrella.
Trump’s summit last week with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un failed to address Japanese security concerns such as a missile program that Tokyo sees as a direct threat. Japan’s defense establishment was also taken aback by the U.S. president saying he would halt “expensive” military exercises with South Korea that have long been seen in Tokyo as a deterrent to North Korea’s threats.
“The alliance has changed from one based on shared values to a transactional alliance,” Katsuyuki Kawai, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker who advises Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on foreign affairs, told Reuters.
“That is the reality now,” he said, stressing that this was his personal view, not that of the government.
Kawai said he was most surprised by the fact Trump cited cost as the reason for halting the joint exercises, long considered by Washington as vital to deter Pyongyang’s threats.
“I think this summit will serve as a trigger for the Japanese people to begin to realize that it is risky to leave Japan’s destiny to another country,” he added.
Abe, who has spoken with Trump face-to-face or by telephone dozens of times including days before the U.S.-North Korea summit, has put a brave face on the president’s meeting with Kim, characterizing it as a first step toward denuclearization.
On Saturday, in an interview with a private TV broadcaster, Abe stressed that Kim had promised “complete denuclearization” and that the president had conveyed directly to the North Korean leader Abe’s insistence on the need to resolve the matter of Japanese citizens abducted decades ago by Pyongyang.
In 2002, North Korea admitted that its agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s. Japan says 17 of its citizens were abducted, five of whom were repatriated.
North Korea has said eight are dead, while another four never entered the country.
Abe has vowed not to rest until all the abductees come home, and now hopes to meet Kim himself to tackle the issue, which he has made a pillar of his political career.
Some lawmakers close to Abe echoed the positive assessment.
“It was impossible for two countries that have been enemies for 70 years to resolve everything in a few hours on one day,” Koichi Hagiuda, a senior LDP lawmaker, told Reuters. “I think it was a major achievement to show the direction in several areas.”
Others agreed expectations in Tokyo for the summit had been too high. Washington originally insisted any agreement include a North Korean commitment to “complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization”, a position backed by Japan.
“The president was not very much interested in substance but in how he was seen in Singapore” said one Japanese government source, referring to the Trump-Kim talks.
Japan’s security concerns coincide with tension over trade between the world’s biggest and third-largest economies, boosting fears that Trump’s fondness for deal-making inclines him to link economic ties and defense.
That threatens to add pressure on Japan to buy more U.S. military equipment and perhaps to pay more to support the nearly 50,000 American troops in Japan, experts said, although Tokyo already shoulders the bulk of the cost of those troops.
“That Mr. Trump mixes up economics and security with the mind-set of a real estate deal is a big cause for concern,” the Nikkei business newspaper said in a weekend analysis.
Trump, who made his fortune in real estate, has not only imposed tariffs on Japanese steel and aluminum exports and threatened to do the same on autos, but also withdrew from a multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact that Abe had promoted as a counterweight to China.
“Trade is more worrisome,” said the Japanese government source. “It’s getting worse ... There is no reliable (U.S.) cabinet level person who can say ‘No’ to unreasonable proposals.
Abe surged to power in 2012 promising to bolster Japan’s defense capabilities. The LDP’s Kawai said the changing nature of the alliance made that even more imperative - although he added that Tokyo should at the same time deepen the alliance given its ultimate reliance on its bigger partner.
Japan’s defense spending has grown for the past six years, and an LDP policy paper last month proposed Japan adopt a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-style commitment to spending 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product on defense.
A report by U.S.-based risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence said worries about a weakened American commitment to its allies without significant steps by Pyongyang to denuclearize “would fuel discussions in both Seoul and Tokyo regarding the need for independent nuclear deterrents”.
The LDP’s Kawai, however, echoed others who say Japan, the only nation to suffer nuclear attacks, would not go that far.
“There is a nuclear allergy,” said the lawmaker, who hails from Hiroshima, where thousands were killed instantly by the Aug. 6, 1945 atomic bombing by U.S. forces on the city in the final days of World War Two. About 140,000 died by the end of that year because of the attack.
A second nuclear bomb was dropped on Nagasaki City three days later and was followed by Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945.
Additional reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo and Ami Miyazaki; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan