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[Speaking Out] Trump Comeback: Why Japan Needs to Be Ready

If re-elected, Donald Trump will likely pressure Japan to improve reciprocity in the bilateral security treaty or make other demands.



Republican presidential candidate and former US President Donald Trump gestures as he stands with Chris LaCivita, Susie Wiles, Jason Miller, John Brabender and other campaign officials during his caucus night watch party in Des Moines, Iowa, US, January 15, 2024. (©REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Former United States President Donald Trump is almost certain to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. He sparked controversy by effectively encouraging Russia to attack North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies that failed to spend enough money for their defense. It cannot be ruled out that if Trump wins the November general election, he could also make some demands regarding the Japan-US alliance. Japan should prepare for all possible scenarios and plan its responses.

Trump's remark came at a campaign rally in South Carolina on February 10. He recounted an episode about a NATO member's president. The president had asked him if the United States would protect the NATO ally from a Russian attack even if the ally failed to spend enough for defense. Trump claims to have answered: "No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage [Russians] to do whatever the hell they want."

No one other than Trump has testified to the accuracy of the episode. Therefore, some interpret it as a story Trump created to boast that more NATO allies increased their defense spending beyond 2% of their gross domestic product under his pressure.

Trump's Dangerous Remark Shocks Europe

However, his remark appeared to ignore NATO's collective defense clause. It seemed to encourage Russia to invade NATO members, sending a shockwave across Europe. Inevitably, his remark was criticized as dangerous, weakening NATO's deterrence, and undermining the postwar international order.

It is almost certain that a re-elected Trump would cut off military aid to Ukraine. Many observers also worry that he might withdraw the United States from NATO. 

However, I remember a former senior Japanese foreign ministry official expressing optimism that Trump would not immediately destroy the Japan-US alliance. This is because a second Trump administration would regard China as the biggest threat. For the US, its alliance with Japan would be essential to counter China. I have also heard 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.

Republican presidential candidate and former US President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally ahead of the Republican caucus in Las Vegas, Nevada on January 27, 2024. (©REUTERS/Ronda Churchill)

Opportunity to Enhance Japan-US Security Structure

During its first term, the Trump administration unofficially asked Japan to triple its contribution to the cost of stationing US forces in the host country. It also requested South Korea to quintuple its support. In his second term, Trump may make similar demands of both Japan and South Korea. As a "deal," he could threaten to withdraw US forces if his requests are rejected.

Trump has also long argued that the one-sidedness of the US-Japan Security Treaty is unfair and should be revised. Currently, only the United States is obliged to defend its ally. 

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. However, exercise is strictly restricted to cases such as when Japan's survival as a nation is threatened. This falls short of achieving reciprocity in the Japan-US alliance.

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


(A version of this article was first published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. Find it in Speaking Out #1119 in Japanese and in English on February 19, 2024.)

Author: Yasushi Tomiyama

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, DC, London, and Bangkok for the Jiji Press.

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