STRATFOR ANALYSIS

Japan changes with the times

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JAPAN has mastered the art of the quick change. Throughout its modern history, the country has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to adapt its policy to suit the demands of the day. In the late 19th century, Japan’s leaders undertook a rapid industrialization campaign, known as the Meiji Restoration, that catapulted the country to the rank of world power in a single generation. After World War I, Japan flirted briefly with constitutional democracy before turning sharply toward military expansionism, sensing that the future lay with the totalitarian governments of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini — and not with Europe’s constitutional democracies. Japan’s leaders switched course again after World War II and refashioned the country as a liberal democracy and an essential US ally in the Cold War.

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Today, Tokyo seems to be adjusting its policy stance once more, this time to accommodate the new administration in Washington. Reuters reported Tuesday that it had obtained exclusive access to an unpublished draft of the “US-Japan Growth and Employment Initiative,” a document detailing the Japanese government’s plan to boost investment and job creation across five sectors in the United States. The document offers insight into Japan’s strategy for managing its relations with the United States under the new administration.

Tokyo’s emerging policy toward Washington is not a drastic departure from its approach to past administrations. Japan remains one of the United States’ biggest advocates in East Asia, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is still interested in reinforcing and increasing the countries’ security ties, as he has tried to do over the past several years. But to keep up with the changes in US policy, Tokyo seems to be taking a different approach to its relationship with Washington.

Just three months ago, Abe was the leading champion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the multilateral system of managing regional trade relations that it embodied. Abe’s administration enacted several tough political and economic reforms to facilitate Japan’s accession to the pact and entreated former President Barack Obama and Trump to join the deal up until the eve of the US presidential election. When Trump announced that the United States would pull out of the TPP, however, Tokyo began to change course, shifting its focus to bilateral relations with Washington. Though Japan is not the only country to make these types of overtures to the new US administration so soon into its tenure, few states have gone to the same lengths to adapt to, and take advantage of, Washington’s changing interests.

The initiative draft reveals the measures Japan’s leaders are prepared to take to stay in the Trump administration’s good graces. The Reuters report on the proposal was light on details but mentioned infrastructure — one of the main focuses of Trump’s campaign — among the US industries in which Japan planned to increase its investment. Japanese telecommunications and internet conglomerate SoftBank Group Corp. announced in December that it would invest $50 billion in the United States and create an estimated 50,000 new jobs in the process. Another area where Japan can support the new administration’s domestic economic goals is the automotive sector (though, according to Reuters, that industry was not covered in the document). Earlier this month, Toyota Motor Corp. announced it would invest $10 billion in US operations over the next five years. The Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, meanwhile, has touted the extensive manufacturing work that Japanese companies such as Toyota and Honda already do in the United States.

Similarly, Tokyo will probably highlight the myriad ways that Japanese businesses contribute to US industry and employment over the next few months. In this way, the Japanese government likely hopes to avoid the kinds of punitive measures that the Trump administration has threatened to impose on other trade partners.

The Trump administration, in turn, will doubtless appreciate Tokyo’s proactive efforts to support infrastructure investment and job growth in the United States. (Japan’s gestures may even help soften the administration’s position on the country’s trade and currency policies and on its spending on the US military personnel it hosts).

Furthermore, bolstering trade ties with Japan will enable the United States to check China’s interests in East
and Southeast Asia. As the United States pulls back from its multilateral economic and security arrangements in the coming years, its partnerships with regional maritime powers such as Japan and with the United Kingdom will take on new importance. In the absence of its previous commitments, these bilateral relationships will help Washington protect its interests in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. Japan has already demonstrated that it is willing to play its part in this endeavor.

But the significance of the document released to Reuters and the investment plans it outlines lie not in their potential effect on the United States’ economy, its employment rate or even its foreign policy strategy. Instead, it rests in what the document reveals about Japan’s understanding of Trump’s interests and priorities and about Tokyo’s plan to align itself with them. In this respect, the document is just the latest example of the astuteness and adaptability that have long been hallmarks of Japanese foreign policy.

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