Japan is unlikely to embrace China as a security partner or build its own nuclear weapons, despite growing alarm about the fate of its treaty alliance with the United States under the presidency of Donald Trump. That is the consensus of Japanese policy and security scholars in Washington, who are gathering more information about the nascent White House administration for their nervous fellow citizens.
While there is some discussion in Japan about going nuclear, there is also talk that perhaps it is better for Tokyo to seek a security rapprochement with Beijing. Both views, however, are in the minority, according to Japanese scholars.
Japan is more likely to first upgrade its missile defense systems before building its own nuclear weapons, said Kenji Jimbo, an associate professor of policy management at Keio University, speaking at a program Wednesday at the Stimson Center in the U.S. capital.
Kunihiko Miyake of the Canon Institute for Global Studies, a former Japanese senior diplomat who spoke on the same panel, said Japan "will be the last country in that part of the world" to possess nuclear weapons because of its legacy as the only country to have suffered an atomic attack.
Fears of an atomic arms race
Japan's security does not increase if it goes nuclear, because that would destabilize the region and fuel an atomic arms race, according to Yoichi Kato, senior research fellow at the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, who spoke Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
During the presidential campaign, Trump asserted that some allies are not pulling their weight and suggested he might not object to Japan or South Korea developing their own nuclear weapons if they do not pay more for U.S. military support.
To try to calm the nervousness in Japan and South Korea — the two key U.S. treaty allies in Asia — new Secretary of Defense James Mattis will visit Seoul on February 2 and Tokyo the following day.
The trip by the retired Marine Corps general "will underscore the commitment of the United States to our enduring alliances with Japan and the Republic of Korea, and further strengthen U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea security cooperation," the Pentagon spokesman, Navy Captain Jeff Davis, said Wednesday.
There has been fascination and some unease about Trump since his head-on campaign for the presidency against Democrat Hillary Clinton, whom Japanese policymakers know well from her time as secretary of state.
'America First' slogans distress Japanese
Japan is experiencing "Trump hype," with the new president all over news and entertainment programs in the country, Keio University professor Toshihiro Nakayama explained at Tuesday's CSIS program.
That anxiety turned into greater distress on Inauguration Day when, in his unconventional address, Trump emphasized his determination to put "America first" in all aspects of his administration's policies.
If the "new vision" Trump declared becomes reality, it will damage the U.S.-Japan alliance and destabilize the region, Kato predicted.
Pushing an "America First" isolationism or unilateralism will increase pressure on the Japanese government to do something different, "but there's really nothing else to do," added Kato, who is a former national security correspondent for Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's largest national newspapers and most influential media organizations.
Japan and U.S. stuck with each other?
"Japan has to keep on hugging the United States," Kato said, although it may now hear from Washington that "we don't want to be hugged."
Japan is falling into "the Trump trap" — overreacting to the new American president amid an overreliance on its longtime security partner, said Keio University's Nakayama.
"We are a status-quo power and we don't want to change the status quo," said Miyake, the former Japanese foreign ministry official.
While the Japanese are nervous about the near-term threats from North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, their long-term security concern is managing a rising China.
"Japan may be the only country explicitly saying no to China," Nakayama said.
Dismay over Trump's TPP veto
Japan's mainstream political and business leaders had hoped the Trans-Pacific Partnership would help contain China and give an economic advantage to the 12 nations which signed it, including Japan and the United States. But Trump officially pulled out of the trade pact Monday, even before the TPP went before the U.S. Congress, and despite Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's plea to him to reconsider his position.
Walking away from TPP "seriously raises questions about our credibility," said Matthew Goodman, a former White House coordinator for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the East Asia Summit.
Goodman, the CSIS senior adviser for Asian economies, laments that after decades of tense trade talks with Japan, "we pulled the plug" just at the pinnacle of economic relations with Tokyo. He is among former U.S. officials trying to assure the jittery Japanese that this is not the end of the world.
"Incredibly powerful actors" in the Republican Party — including senators, governors and business leaders — want to preserve the international order, the Japanese scholars at CSIS were told by Michael Green, a former National Security Council senior director for Asia.
"I think we will get back to something like TPP," Goodman predicted. Until then, he said, speaking in golfing terms: The United States "has just hit the ball into the woods, and we may be there for the next four years."