On Thursday afternoon, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the first foreign leader to meet in person with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump since he won the presidency Nov. 8. The two had an informal conference in New York City before Abe headed to Lima, Peru, for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, where, among other things, the Japanese leader is expected to meet one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two meetings could not be more indicative of Japan's precarious place in a rapidly changing world: Trump has repeatedly said he will scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and called for shifting more of the United States' regional security burden to its allies, which will disproportionately affect Japan. And Russia under Putin has chilled toward Japan as Russian relations with the United States have deteriorated, though with Trump in office that could soon change. The demise of the TPP, the prospect of a U.S. retrenchment in East Asia, and the possibility of an even modest U.S.-Russia rapprochement spell interesting times ahead for Japan as it strives to reclaim its regional primacy and to contain the rise of China.
Throughout its modern history, Japan has proved unusually adept at adjusting to changes in its strategic environment. In the 1870s and 1880s, while China and Korea stubbornly resisted the new geopolitical reality created by European imperialism, Japan embraced European-style military and economic modernization. In the span of three decades, Japan transformed itself from an appendage of the Chinese world order into a modern great power — a status cemented by its decisive victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Likewise, following its devastating defeat in World War II, Japan willingly subordinated itself to U.S. Cold War interests and its alliance framework, recognizing in them the path to Japan's ultimate re-emergence as East Asia's leading power — a process delayed, though perhaps not upended entirely, by domestic economic and political challenges in the 1990s and 2000s.
Now, Japan appears to be recalibrating to changing geopolitics once again. After two decades of relative quiet, the archipelago is in the early stages of what its leaders openly call a rejuvenation of Japanese national power. Struck by population decline and economic stagnation domestically and China's growing economy and military might abroad, Japan is waking up. Since taking office in 2012, Abe has implemented innovative and uncommon measures to revive the Japanese economy while rebuilding the country's Self-Defense Forces and ramping up its activity in the South and East China seas. On the diplomatic front, Abe has worked energetically to counter Chinese overtures to key Association of Southeast Asian Nations members, to mobilize regional support for constraining China's rise, and above all to reaffirm and deepen U.S.-Japanese political and security cooperation.
This is the backdrop against which Abe's meetings with Trump and Putin, and the larger policy shifts they portend, must be considered. In the months prior to Nov. 8, Abe's administration strongly advocated a robust U.S. economic, diplomatic and security presence in East Asia. The TPP was central to that vision. In fact, while opposition to the trade pact grew in the United States, Tokyo persistently pushed for it, going so far as to ratify it in its House of Representatives on Nov. 10. The Japanese government has been similarly staunch in its promotion of a U.S.-led network of regional security partnerships, seeking to utilize the deferred promise of a U.S. "pivot" toward Asia to compel U.S. re-engagement with the region.
Of course, the Abe administration has long sensed that, whatever its stated policy toward Asia, in practice Washington is steadily relying more heavily on allies such as Japan and South Korea to defend its regional security interests, especially concerning China. This partly explains Tokyo's increased military investment and progress toward military normalization in recent years. Even so, Trump's victory and the rapidly diminished U.S. economic and military presence in Asia it could herald adds impetus to the efforts.
And just as Japan has shown a remarkable ability to survive and thrive in difficult geopolitical circumstances in the past, it may yet be able to snatch unexpected victories from what others might consider the jaws of defeat. Though the United States has not yet formally pulled out of the TPP, the Abe administration is already soliciting interest from other signatories, including Australia and Mexico, to renegotiate the deal. With the United States seemingly out of the picture, Japan is well-positioned to take an even more active role in shaping the partnership. Similarly, though a reduced U.S. regional security presence would certainly present challenges for Japan, it would also create an opportunity for Japan to step in and fill the void, potentially becoming the leader of a regional coalition to balance against China.
In fact, Japan is already changing its direction. Tokyo's evolving relationship with Russia is testament to the opportunities open to a Japan less bound to the United States. In 2014, Japan abandoned talks with Russia over the disputed Kuril Islands and joined the United States and Europe in placing sanctions on Russia. Japan-Russia relations have been tense since, but now that U.S.-Russia relations could warm under Trump, Tokyo and Moscow could also become closer. If Japan is able to settle the Kuril dispute and cooperate with Russia, it could also disrupt the tightening relationship between China and Russia.
Japanese leaders may not have expected or necessarily wanted a Trump administration in Washington, but they also recognize the opportunity it brings. Tokyo will certainly lament some changes that come with Trump, including the demise of the TPP, but it will also embrace the opportunity to step into a stronger regional role, filling the hole that the United States leaves behind.
Editor's note: This report has been updated to correctly reflect the name of the disputed islands.