The first few chaotic weeks of the Trump administration have brought divergent fortunes for America’s closest allies in the Asia-Pacific. Japan, which Trump consistently maligned during the 2016 campaign, has rushed to embrace the new president. Australia avoided his crosshairs on the trail, but was surprised by a jarring phone call between the new president and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and has become increasingly skeptical of him since the inauguration. It is no surprise that the Trump presidency should cause a stir in allied capitals. His longstanding antipathy for U.S. partners has been well-documented, after all. But these early experiences show that Trump’s iconoclastic proclivities and erratic temperament could engender allied responses far more complex than the well-known alliance dilemmas of entrapment and abandonment. As allies calculate how Trump’s transactional, protectionist, and neo-Jacksonian foreign policy will affect their security, economy, and domestic politics, they must evaluate how he poses risks to them in each of these domains and devise their engagement strategies accordingly.
While campaigning, Trump made no secret of his disdain for Japan. He repeatedly criticized Tokyo’s financial contributions to its own security, arguing that if Japan did not pay up the United States should begin to withdraw troops, even if that inspired Japan to seek nuclear weapons. On multiple occasions, including since the inauguration, he called Japan a currency manipulator and criticized its trade practices. And he demonstrated almost no interest in Japan’s most pressing security concerns — North Korea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea. For his own part, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe placed his confidence in a Hillary Clinton presidency, meeting with the Democratic candidate in September — an atypical pre-election move for the Japanese.
Yet upon Trump’s surprise win, Abe was on his doorstep. On November 18, he visited the president-elect in Trump Tower on his way to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, seeking to curry the new leader’s favor with a gold-plated golf club. Japan sought and received an early visit from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. During this trip, the Abe government was delighted to receive a reaffirmation of past U.S. declaratory policy that Article V of the U.S.-Japan defense treaty would apply to the Senkaku Islands.
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